Pfizer and AstraZeneca have rejected Government warnings of months-long vaccine supply gaps, claiming there will be enough doses to hit the country’s ambitious targets.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty this week warned that vaccine availability issues will ‘remain the case for several months’ as firms struggle to keep up with global demand.
Sir John Bell, a regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and member of SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), has also said that insufficient investment in the capacity to make vaccines has left the UK unprepared.
In a bid to ration supplies, the Government has pledged to give single doses of the Pfizer vaccine to as many people as they can – rather than give a second dose to those already vaccinated.
But manufacturers of both the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs have rubbished concerns, saying there is no problem with supply.
Sir Richard Sykes, who led a review of the Government’s Vaccines Taskforce in December, added that he is ‘not aware’ of a shortage in supply.
The comments come after a further 53,285 people tested positive in Britain on Friday – marking four days in a row with more than 50,000 positive tests announced.
And 613 more people have died with the virus – including an eight-year-old child – taking the total official death toll to 74,125.
The eight-year-old died in England on December 30 and had other health problems, the NHS said.
At least one million Pfizer doses and some 530,000 Oxford doses will likely be given to patients across the country next week, The Daily Telegraph reports.
Earlier this month, AstraZeneca boss Pascal Soriot promised the firm will be able to deliver two million doses a week by mid-January – meaning 24million could be immunised by Easter.
Vaccine firms have rejected the Government’s warnings of jab supply gaps lasting months, claiming there will be enough doses to hit the Government’s ambitions targets (file image)
Margaret Keenan returned to hospital this week to receive her second round of the Covid-19 vaccine, but thousands of other patients are set to see their appointments delayed under a new scheme aimed at getting more people to receive their first dose
The intervention by the developers of the UK’s only two approved Covid vaccines came amid a row over ministers’ decision to ration vaccine supplies.
Officials have said patients who already had one dose of the vaccine should have their second one – which they were told they’d get three weeks later – postponed for up to 12 weeks.
In a statement published on Thursday night, the UK’s chief medical officers said the decision had been made on a ‘balance of risks and benefits’.
The medical officers are Professor Whitty (England), Dr Frank Atherton (Wales), Dr Gregor Smith (Scotland) and Dr Michael McBride (Northern Ireland).
They said: ‘We have to ensure that we maximise the number of eligible people who receive the vaccine.
‘Currently the main barrier to this is vaccine availability, a global issue, and this will remain the case for several months and, importantly, through the critical winter period.
‘The availability of the AZ vaccine [Oxford/AstraZeneca] reduces, but does not remove, this major problem. Vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away.’
And they said there is no reason to suggest the vaccines will be any less effective if doses are given further apart than intended.
The report added: ‘With most vaccines an extended interval between the prime and booster dose leads to a better immune response to the booster dose.
‘There is evidence that a longer interval between the first and second doses promotes a stronger immune response with the AstraZeneca vaccine.
‘There is currently no strong evidence to expect that the immune response from the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would differ substantially from the AstraZeneca and Moderna vaccines.’
PFIZER HITS BACK AT UK PLAN TO GIVE PEOPLE ONE DOSE NOT TWO
Pfizer warned yesterday there is ‘no data’ to show a single dose of its coronavirus vaccine provides long-term protection after the UK scrapped its original jab rollout plan.
The UK medical regulator is now recommending Covid jabs are given in two doses three months apart, rather than four weeks apart, to allow millions more people to be immunised over a shorter time period.
The strategy will apply to both Pfizer/BioNTech’s vaccine and the newly approved jab by Oxford/AstraZeneca, despite limited data around the effectiveness of the initial doses.
It is a direct response to spiking Covid cases and hospitalisations across the UK that are being driven by a new, highly infectious strain that emerged in the South East of England in September.
Virtually the whole of England is facing brutal lockdown until the spring, with Covid vaccines the only hope of ending the devastation.
Health bosses now want to give as many people as possible an initial dose, rather than holding back the second doses, so more of the population can enjoy at least some protection.
AstraZeneca praised the move and revealed it had tested the three-month strategy on a small sub-group of trialists in its studies.
But Pfizer said there was ‘no data’ in its studies to show its vaccine protects against Covid when taken 12 weeks apart.
In a thinly-veiled swipe at the UK, the US firm warned that any ‘alternative’ dosing regimens should be closely monitored by health authorities.
‘Data from the phase three study demonstrated that, although partial protection from the vaccine appears to begin as early as 12 days after the first dose, two doses of the vaccine are required to provide the maximum protection against the disease, a vaccine efficacy of 95 per cent,’ Pfizer said in a statement.
‘There are no data to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained after 21 days.’
But doctors have revolted and said they won’t deny vulnerable patients the vaccines they promised them amid concerns the jabs won’t work as well with just one dose.
GPs blasted the policy as ‘grossly unfair’ and frustrated scientists warned that clinical trials of the vaccine only tested how well it worked with a three-week gap, so there is no evidence the new regime would work long-term.
Sir Sykes, chairman of the Royal Institution and Imperial College Healthcare, also told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning: ‘I wasn’t aware there was a shortage.
‘I thought the difficulty was getting people vaccinated, and with the Pfizer vaccine that is quite difficult because of the conditions in which the vaccine has to be stored.
‘But with the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, that should be very, very straightforward.
‘Going to pharmacists, going to care homes, going to GP surgeries, there should be no restriction on the distribution of that vaccine.’
He added: ‘If the Government said that there’s a shortage then that must be the fact. If there is a shortage, that’s a problem.’
Meanwhile, Sir Bell told The Times: ‘The government has been completely disinterested in building onshore manufacturing capacity for any of the life-sciences products.
‘I’m not talking about this Government, I’m talking about all governments for the last ten years.’
A member of the Oxford/AstraZeneca team also predicted to the newspaper that two million doses of the vaccine will be available per week in more than two weeks.
The source said: ‘The plan is to build it up fairly rapidly – by the third week of January we should get two million a week.’
Experts backing the policy change, however, have hit back and said every second dose that gets given is one more person missing out on their first, potentially life-saving vaccine.
Former Department of Health vaccination chief Professor David Salisbury said: ‘Every time we give a second dose right now, we are holding that back from someone who is likely, if they get coronavirus, to die.’
The Government has not yet laid out whether there will be sanctions for doctors who refuse to switch to the one-dose policy, with one doctor saying NHS bosses had told her to use ‘clinical discretion’.
Margaret Keenan, the first person in the world to receive a Covid-19 vaccine, received her second jab earlier this week.
But thousands of others across Britain will see their second appointment delayed so the NHS can focus on delivering jabs to more people.
A total of 944,539 people across the UK had received the first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine by December 27, according to the Department of Health.
The Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA) warned the ‘ill thought-out’ plan to delay the second dose would leave many vulnerable staff in limbo.
GPs working for Black Country and West Birmingham NHS boards, as well as a doctor in Oxford, said they would honour the commitments they had made to patients.
No10 has pinned its hopes on the Oxford vaccine – which was approved this week – finally putting an end to the perpetual cycle of locking down and opening up, which has devastated the economy and wider healthcare.
But life is unlikely to go back to normal by Easter even if 24million people are vaccinated because two-thirds of the population will still be vulnerable to the disease.
Scientists say herd immunity — when enough of a population becomes immune that the virus fizzles out — will only be achieved when 70 per cent of people are protected. Some experts in the US have warned the figure could be as high as 90 per cent.
Teaching union calls for ALL primary and secondary schools to stay closed because of Covid ‘tsunami’ – after primaries are shut across London in latest government U-turn
A teaching union has called for all schools across the country to be closed for the start of the new term after the government U-turned on its decision to keep some primaries in London open despite rising Covid cases.
The government bowed to protests, legal pressure and scientific advice on New Year’s Day after it initially omitted a number of the capital’s boroughs from the forced closures.
But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, questioned why the same restrictions are not being rolled out across the rest of the country.
The list did not include areas where Covid rates are high such as Haringey whose leaders said they would defy the government and support schools that decided to close.
All primary schools in London will now close for the start of the new term after the government U-turned on its decision to keep some open despite rising Covid cases
The government bowed to protests, legal pressure and scientific advice on New Year’s Day after it initially omitted a number of boroughs from the forced closures
Many of the London boroughs which had been told to keep primary schools open are experiencing a surge in Covid cases
Under the Government’s initial plan, schools in the City of London and Kingston were set to reopen but those in 22 other London boroughs would have remained closed.
The leaders of Camden, Islington, Greenwich, Haringey, Harrow, Hackney and Lewisham boroughs, and the City of London, said in a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson: ‘We ask in the strongest terms that your recommendation is urgently reviewed and our primary schools are added to the list of those advised to move learning online.’
The action prompted an emergency Cabinet Office meeting today where they decided to abandon the original plans and order the remaining area to close their primary schools.
The move is expected to see similar arrangements to the spring lockdown when schools continued to accept children from key worker families but moved to online learning for the vast majority of pupils.
But a teaching union has slammed the decision not to apply the same measures to schools across the country, due to the Covid ‘tsunami’ rocking the country.
Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan and party colleagues running the city’s councils had been pushing for all schools in London to shut
Sadiq Khan responded to the news, saying: ‘This is the right decision – and I want to thank education minister Nick Gibb for our constructive conversations over the past two days.’
Mr Khan previously branded it ‘nonsensical’ for some primary school pupils to be told to return next week and wrote to the Prime Minister about his anger that local leaders had not been consulted.
Mr Williamson said: ‘Children’s education and wellbeing remains a national priority. Moving further parts of London to remote education really is a last resort and a temporary solution.
‘As infection rates rise across the country, and particularly in London, we must make this move to protect our country and the NHS. We will continue keep the list of local authorities under review, and reopen classrooms as soon as we possibly can.’
The Tier 4 areas initially excluded from the closures but now added are Camden, City of London, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston upon Thames, Lambeth and Lewisham.
According to Covid rates compiled by the PA news agency, Greenwich had 2,176 new cases recorded in the seven days to December 26 compared to list-featuring Kensington and Chelsea’s 768 new cases in the same period.
On December 15, Greenwich was forced to withdraw advice asking schools to switch to online learning amid rising coronavirus rates following threats of legal action by the Education Secretary.
Labour’s shadow education secretary Kate Green said the last-minute nature of the London schools decision had caused ‘huge stress’ for pupils, families and staff, with only a matter of days to go before the new term was due to commence.
But health secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘Over the past week we have seen infections and hospitalisations rise sharply across London and hospitals are coming under increased pressure.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government has to ‘strike a balance’ between education and infection rates
‘While our priority is to keep as many children as possible in school, we have to strike a balance between education and infection rates and pressures on the NHS.
‘The situation in London continues to worsen and so today we are taking action to protect the public and reduce the spread of this disease in the community.
‘Everyone across London must take this situation incredibly seriously and act responsibly to minimise the spread of this deadly disease.’
The previous decision had left many baffled, with schools ordered to remain open just yards away from other schools forced to close.
Two schools in Islington, North London, had been given different advice about whether they could open or close despite being just 700 yards apart.
Councillor Richard Watts, leader of Islington Council, slammed the government for their last-minute decision.
He said: ‘It’s unacceptable that the Government has waited until Friday night on New Year’s Day, with just a weekend before pupils were due to go back, to make a decision that should have been made weeks ago, as the public health situation became clear.
‘The Government has taken the right decision only after previously threatening schools with legal action if they did not reopen in January, after Islington and other councils advised last month that this had to be done, following public health advice.
‘The Government has left schools and parents with very little time to prepare and make arrangements.’
Schools are already converting sports halls and setting up marquees in playgrounds to prepare for the mass testing programme which will be manned by alumni volunteers.
All secondary schools have been asked to carry out tests for five million people from next week.
Pupils will take the tests themselves but former pupils will be on hand to help the operation.
Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT union general secretary, agreed, saying: ‘Yet again, parents, pupils and staff are having to deal with the consequences of yet more last-minute chaotic announcements from the Government.
‘The Government has bowed to political pressure and has once again shown its disregard for the scientific advice which increasingly suggests that the delayed reopening of schools across all areas of the country is essential in breaking the chain of coronavirus transmission.’
The Tier 4 areas initially excluded from the closures but now added are Camden, City of London, Greenwich, Hackney, Haringey, Harrow, Islington, Kingston upon Thames, Lambeth and Lewisham
Scientific advisers had warned that more school closures are necessary to control rising infections.
The Government’s Sage committee said it was ‘highly unlikely’ the pandemic could be managed effectively if schools were free to open next week.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ‘Just at the moment when we need some decisive leadership, the government is at sixes and sevens.
‘The Government cannot expect to command public confidence with such a confusing and last-minute approach.’
Meanwhile Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: ‘It is welcome that, albeit in their usual last-minute fashion, ministers have corrected an obviously nonsensical position – one that it could not justify by evidence or sense.
‘But the question has to be asked: why are education ministers so inadequate and inept? Who is advising them?
‘And what is right for London is right for the rest of the country. With the highest level of Covid-19 infection, and hospitals buckling under the tsunami of very ill patients, it is time for ministers to do their duty – to protect the NHS by following Sage advice and close all primary and secondary schools to reduce the R rate below 1.
‘It is time for the Government to protect its citizens, and in particular its children, by shutting all primary schools for two weeks in order for the situation to be properly assessed, schools made much safer and children and their families protected.’
A businessman whose daughter attends a primary school in a Covid hotspot had blasted the ‘absurd’ decision to keep it open before the latest U-turn.
Stephen Cook was left baffled by the decision as his London council told head teachers to defy ministers and remain closed over the coming weeks.
Mr Cook, 55, who runs a building firm told MailOnline: ‘It’s all very confusing and totally absurd. But then you could say that we live in very confusing and absurd times.
‘None of it makes any sense because there are kids that come from the London Borough of Barnet to my daughter’s school and she also has friends from there. Haringey’s infection rate is higher than Barnet’s so why are not all schools in the area closing?;
Mr Cook lives with his family on Coppetts Road, a busy thoroughfare which divides the London Borough of Haringey on one side and Barnet on the other.
He said: ‘Kids who live in the borough of Barnet attend Coldfall and Haringey kids go to Coppetts Wood. And when they are out and about in local parks, they are constantly mixing and playing.
Stephen Cook and daughter Holly were left baffled by the initial decision as his London council told head teachers to defy ministers and stay closed
‘We are in an incredibly difficult situation and I’m glad that I’m not in charge, but we need greater clarity because a lot of people don’t understand what’s going on.
‘I live in a Covid hotspot but if I cross the road, I’m in the London Borough of Barnet so why is there not more consistency?’
According to the Government’s latest figures, in the week leading up to December 25, Haringey registered 2,120 cases of coronavirus with infections running at 789.14 per 100,000.
For the same period, Barnet registered 2,751 with infections running at 694.13 per 100,000.
Haringey councillor Joseph Ejiofor wrote to head teachers outlining the fact the area’s Covid case rate is higher than the London average and that officials weren’t consulted before the decision was made.
He wrote: ‘We are part of the same integrated care system as two boroughs where primaries have been told to stay closed (Barnet and Enfield) and the North Middlesex, a hospital under significant pressure, serves the populations of both Haringey and Enfield.
‘We believe that all primary schools in Haringey should therefore open only to the children of key workers and vulnerable children next week and we will support all our schools in this approach.’
Jenny Batt, Lib Dem councillor for Worcester Park in Sutton, south-west London, said local people were ‘confused and worried’ about what was going on and did not understand how officials were reaching their decisions.
Medics are pictured collecting a patient from an ambulance at the Royal London Hospital this morning, January 1
‘They don’t understand what the criteria is,’ she told BBC London. ‘I’ve got residents who live in Sutton whose children go to a Kingston school and are told that it is safe.
‘And then they’ve got their neighbours’ children who can’t go to school because theirs isn’t safe.’
Secondaries also face an anxious wait to find out whether they will be able to reopen fully on the new target date of January 18.
The Department for Education is racing to put a mass testing system in place, but has warned the curbs could need to be even wider than for primaries as older children are more likely to spread the disease. The situation is not expected to become clear until the next review date of January 13.