Roll out in danger of stalling

6th December 2020

Vaccine approval but can it be delivered?

Vaccination is now the name of the Covid-19 game, with the race being on to roll out as much as possible, as quickly as possible, as safely as possible.  From next week the most vulnerable, starting with those aged over 80, will be offered the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine across the country.  The NHS are confident that,

“The vaccine has met strict standards of safety, quality and effectiveness set out by the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).”

Like much else about the pandemic, the fact that a vaccine has become available appears to have taken the government by surprise.  On the assumption that a vaccine would emerge it would be reasonable to assume that some planning may have gone into the programme for rolling out the vaccination, bearing in mind the urgency attached to defeating the virus.

However, as at other key stages in the pandemic (early lockdown, efficient test and trace, coping with a second wave) the government appears to have been under prepared for the consequences and in this case the implementation of rollout.

The past week has seen NHS officials scrambling to find suitable locations in which to undertake the vaccination programme, with sports halls, community centres and the occasional draughty scout hut being dragooned into service to accommodate the first wave of vaccinations. 

Selected hospitals across the country will begin roll out this week while Primary Care Networks scour their localities for locations which can deal with almost 1,000 people in a four day period from 15th December, in a Covid secure way, in order to get the first wave of community vaccinations underway this side of Christmas.   

No doubt with the engagement of local authority teams appropriate venues will be found and the vaccination programme will be ready to go.  Except that, there are already concerns about the number of trained staff available to undertake the vaccinations themselves.  Once again, an issue which could have been anticipated, with some thought and consideration given to how additional staff could either have been recruited or trained in advance.

As things stand the NHS are concerned about being overwhelmed as the roll out coincides with the peak winter cold and flu period, as well as having to cope with conditions and operations for patients delayed from the first wave of the virus.  If NHS staff are deployed to deliver vaccines they are not going to be available for other duties.  Chris Hopson, Chief Executive of NHS Providers puts it succinctly,

“Clearly the perfect storm would be if we have the combination of a third surge at the end of January, triggered perhaps by the looser rules over Christmas, and a cold snap, and the massive backlog of treatment for people that was delayed from the first phase – and having to do the vaccination at the same time.  That would be the nightmare scenario.”

Retired medical staff and existing medical students are already being mooted as candidates for vaccination delivery, as well as ambulance staff and even airline cabin crew.

Hamfisted organisation around the pandemic is only equalled by the inability of the government to come to a Brexit deal with the EU to keep goods and services moving into the New Year, when current regulations end on 31st December.

With only 800,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in the country so far, with another 5 million doses expected by the end of the year, mass vaccination will depend upon supplies reaching the UK post Brexit, with 35 million doses expected to follow from 1st January.  Whether a deal is reached with the EU or not in the next few days extra checks on goods leaving and entering the UK and on those entering from the EU are expected from 1st January.

However unexpected the global pandemic may have been, no such plea of mitigation could be remotely plausible for departure from the EU, which has now been on the cards for four years.

Ironically, with Boris Johnson’s love of inappropriate military metaphor to describe the struggle to suppress Covid-19, it is the military who may be called upon to ensure sufficient quantities of the vaccine are available.  The Ministry of Defence has military planes on standby should they be required to beat the lorry queues at Dover and bail out the government.  Expect many press stories about the resilience and fighting spirit of ‘our boys’ should such a scenario come to pass.

The inept handling of the pandemic by the government, compounded by the confusion of measures over supporting the economy and delivering an effective public health message, have resulted in a lack of confidence in the general public over the effectiveness and safety of any vaccine.  A recent poll for The Observer suggests that 35% of the public say they are unlikely to take the vaccine; 48% are worried about its safety; while 55% are worried about side effects.

This is not a good situation when mass take up is essential for effective immunity.  The Tories demonstrate daily how things should not be done, with the Covid-19 death toll close to 60,000 on official figures.  An effective opposition would be outlining a clear alternative programme for how things should be done.  There is no sign of Labour under Kier Starmer being that opposition.

The mishandling of the pandemic in particular and its economic impact in general has seen another 30,000 jobs in the retail sector under threat in the past week alone, with Debenhams and the Arcadia group going under.  Unemployment will surge in the New Year with no remedy in prospect. 

Working class communities, hit hardest by the pandemic are also those being hit hardest by the economic backlash.  A cosy consensus in the so-called national interest is not good enough.  Labour needs to be on the side of the under privileged and oppressed.  It needs to be seen to be fighting their corner.  That means action both inside and outside Parliament, around a programme which can begin to address the needs of the many, not the few.   

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