UK Covid jab rollout may not hit target pace for two weeks, say officials

News narrows chances of hitting goal of protecting more than 13 million of most vulnerable people by 15 February

Health officials have warned that supply “delays” mean the Covid vaccination programme is only set to hit its target pace in the second half of this month, narrowing the chances of hitting the goal of protecting more than 13 million vulnerable people by 15 February.

AstraZeneca, which is overseeing the manufacture of the newest vaccine, claims it has over 3m doses. But government sources said talks are ongoing with the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) about the need to speed up safety checks of batches, which have taken up to 20 days.

Boris Johnson highlighted the checks as a “rate-limiting factor” in Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference.

It means the immunisation rate of at least 2m weekly vaccinations may not be met until the week after next, officials said. The MHRA countered that it has taken steps to speed up “without compromising quality and safety”. A spokesperson said: “We are working closely with the manufacturer, AstraZeneca, to ensure that batches of the vaccine are released as quickly as possible.”

It said biological medicines such as vaccines were “very complex” and independent quality and safety testing has to be carried out on batches by the National Institute of Biological Standards and Control (NIBSC).


By Tuesday 1.3 million people had been immunised across the UK, including almost a quarter of the over-80s, Johnson said. Most of these had the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which was approved in early December.

Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, was pressed by MPs in a call on Monday for a schedule of vaccine supplies but reportedly declined saying “manufacturing needs to stabilise”.

The Guardian understands AstraZeneca is only on course to increase its manufacturing capacity to 2m weekly doses by mid-January, which means the harder-to-handle Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is likely to be a critical part of the first weeks of the vaccine campaign.

Any slow start to the rollout of the easier-to-store Oxford/AstraZeneca jab is likely to pile pressure on GPs tasked with delivery. They warned on Tuesday that routine checkups for people with stable health conditions and appointments would have to be cancelled if they are to dedicate themselves to the vaccine campaign. The first 530,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine are being administered this week from hospitals and some GPs surgeries.

“GPs need to be given the flexibility to let them focus on the vaccination campaign as a priority, and there must be honesty around what services will need to be paused to allow this to happen,” said Dr Richard Vautrey, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee.

“The challenge is going to be doing everything at once,” said Dr Michael Mulholland, vice chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners. “We need a larger workforce.” Talks to reduce the paperwork needed to bring back former nurses and doctors are under way.

By the end of this week there will be 775 GP-led vaccination sites across England but there are calls for all of the UK’s 8,000 GP surgeries to get supplies.

“Primary care will be able to deliver at least 1m doses and hospitals and the other sites will do the other million,” Mulholland said. “The sites are set up, but now we need the vaccine. We haven’t been told there is an awful lot of AstraZeneca coming through yet.”

AstraZeneca has told the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) it will supply at least 20m doses by the end of March as part of a commitment to deliver 100m by the end of the year, but the government has issued no details of when supplies will be released. Pfizer/BioNTech is expected to provide 40m doses.

The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is being made in laboratories in Oxford and at Keele University in Staffordshire. Staff at Oxford Biomedica are working around the clock and a spokesperson said it was producing batches “on time”.

“Growing cells is basically the process,” a spokesperson said. “We are effectively adding a bit of the virus that can make all the cells we have grown into vaccine.” Staff have been increased from 550 to more than 650, mostly working on the vaccine.

The DHSC said that after the over-70s, clinically vulnerable, care home residents and health and social care workers have been offered one dose, the programme will move to all over-50s.

They believe that without hitches that could mean by April almost all those with a more than a slight chance of dying from Covid will have received at least one shot.


Robert Booth, Sarah Boseley and Denis Campbell

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
NHS leaders raise concerns over pace of Covid vaccine rollout
Exclusive: more than half of hospital trusts in England yet to receive supplies as variant spreads

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

22, Dec, 2020 @7:31 PM

Article image
Ministers urged to strip away red tape to hit UK vaccine rollout target
Doctors say 24/7 vaccine centres and recruiting retired health workers could help reach goal

Linda Geddes Science correspondent

01, Jan, 2021 @6:13 PM

Article image
UK to begin using Oxford Covid vaccine as PM strikes hopeful tone
Boris Johnson says he hopes pace of vaccination can be ramped up to protect tens of millions in months

Sarah Boseley Health editor

03, Jan, 2021 @7:46 PM

Article image
Covid vaccine: chief medical officers defend rescheduling of second doses
Statement follows outcry from GPs who say cancelling appointments is waste of time and could lead to confusion among patients

Nicola Davis and Linda Geddes

31, Dec, 2020 @7:46 PM

Article image
GP’s photo diary captures ‘positive vibes’ of Covid vaccine rollout
Dr Prabir Mitra documents start of the immunisation programme at his surgery in King’s Lynn

David Batty

23, Dec, 2020 @12:01 PM

Article image
UK doctors finding it harder to get PPE kit to treat Covid-19 patients, research reveals
Royal College of Physicians says NHS staff’s lives are still at risk despite ministers’ pledges

Denis Campbell Health policy editor

27, Apr, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Covid vaccine: unease among doctors as follow-up doses of UK jab delayed
Survey finds medics have concerns about scrapping of second appointments

Denis Campbell, Robert Booth and Rachel Obordo

05, Jan, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
Scientists question NHS algorithm as young people called in for jab
Apparent inconsistencies in QCovid risk prediction tool wrongly identifying some patients as high risk

Linda Geddes Science correspondent

09, Mar, 2021 @3:24 PM

Article image
Covid-19: test all health and care workers weekly, says UK scientist
MPs hear ministers were told in April that systematic testing was essential to keep staff safe

Sarah Boseley Health editor

21, Jul, 2020 @3:11 PM

Article image
Outrage as people in Coventry offered Covid jab over 100 miles away
News that people have been invited to travel to Manchester comes amid fresh criticism of vaccination programme

Jessica Murray

14, Jan, 2021 @10:43 AM