Has Britain got ANY chance of vaccinating 13m by mid-February?


Supermarkets, high-street pharmacies and breweries have all offered to help deliver Britain’s great coronavirus vaccine drive after the Government pinned all of its hopes on jabs rescuing the country from its third lockdown.

Three Morrisons car parks will be converted into drive-through Covid vaccination hubs from Monday, with another 47 on standby if ministers need them, according to the supermarket chain’s chief executive.

Boots is turning three of its pharmacies into vaccine sites in Halifax, Huddersfield and Gloucester from next week, and Tesco has offered up its warehouses and lorries to help move doses quickly around the country. Craft brewer BrewDog has also claimed it is in talks with ministers about turning its closed bars into temporary immunisation centres.

Number 10 has pledged to vaccinate around 13million of the most vulnerable Brits — which would include care homes residents and staff, NHS workers and almost everybody aged 70 and older — by mid-February, with the hope of ditching the most draconian curbs by March. The mammoth target would require vaccinating about two million people a week.   

But there are serious doubts about whether the target is achievable, given that only one million people have been vaccinated since the scheme launched a month ago and the NHS will need to juggle running the biggest immunisation programme in British history with battling the greatest crisis it has ever faced as Covid patients continue to pour into hospitals. Record numbers of staff absences and stringent infection control measures are also making the jobs of frontline health workers more difficult.

The NHS has refused to commit to the two million target because of potential vaccine supply shortages, staffing concerns and other logistical hurdles. There is also a suggestion that health bosses want to distance themselves from the Government’s arbitrary targets, given that it has failed to hit numerous goals throughout the pandemic, including ramping up daily swabbing capacity and expanding NHS Test and Trace. 

If it wants to deliver on the 13million promise, the NHS will need to move four times quicker than its winter flu jab programme. Figures show only 11.68million people eligible for a free flu jab from their GP in England got one last winter, at a rate of 470,000 per week. For comparison, the speed of the entire UK’s current Covid inoculation drive — which relied on just one vaccine until yesterday — stands at 330,000 per week. 

In order to vaccinate all 13million Britons in the four most at-risk categories by mid-February, the NHS operation must speed up six-fold to 2million a week. Only 1million doses have been dished out so far, which means roughly 12million still need to get their vaccine in the 41 days between now and February 15. 

That is the equivalent of around 290,000 a day. It is crucial people are vaccinated 12 days before measures are relaxed because the vaccines take 12 days to start working. Department of Health statistics dated up until December 27 show 944,539 doses were dished out in the 20 days of it being operational — at a speed of around 47,000 a day. 

Top experts told MailOnline there was ‘no evidence’ to suggest the Government was capable of delivering the two million doses per week and suggested the Government was dangling the carrot of vaccines to soften the blow of the newest lockdown, while MPs said the goal was ‘dubious’.   

There are concerns the programme will be hampered by problems and that the national shutdown could last much longer than ministers have promised. For comparison, the first lockdown in March went on for more than three months, despite Brits being told it would only last several weeks. 

Top epidemiologist Professor Gabriel Scally, from the University of Bristol, told MailOnline he was doubtful the Government will be able to live up to its vaccine promises, adding: ‘I haven’t seen enough detail or proof on how they’re going to do this, for me to be confident.’

He added: ‘There is a rosy glow around the vaccination programme but it has to be organised well. I’m concerned about the lack of local NHS organisation, there are no regional or local health authorities to run these programmen.

When WILL we escape the recurring Covid nightmare? Five leading scientific experts give their verdicts on how Britain could return to normality – and how long it might take 

As Britain is plunged into its third national lockdown, many are wondering whether the Covid nightmare will ever end. 

Here, we ask some of the country’s foremost scientific experts to consult their crystal balls, and give you their views on how and when we might return to normality…

PULL TOGETHER AND GET A JAB SO SUMMER WILL BE SAVED  

Dr Paul McKay, vaccine research scientist at Imperial College department of medicine

Desperate though this latest lockdown announcement is, given the rapidly rising hospitalisation and infection rates, it certainly seems necessary.

But, while the logistics of finding our way out of all this are daunting, I believe it is possible to get Britain back to near normal within six months.

The Government aims to vaccinate two million people every week, beginning with the oldest and most vulnerable. This would rely on exceptional efficiency. But, I believe, it can be done.

So far, around 1,000 sites across the UK have been selected to carry out vaccinations, so they will each have to process 2,000 vaccines a week in order to achieve that target of two million. That’s 400 jabs a day, five days a week… or about one a minute throughout the working day.

It would be impossible for one person to safely manage that. But one every 20 minutes is feasible. So we’ll need 20 people on average giving vaccines at each centre.

And at that rate, the entire population of 66 million Britons could be treated in eight months. It’s ambitious, but not impossible. And here’s a boost: not everyone needs a vaccine immediately.

Current dogma is that the 11.75 million children in the UK, for instance, are the least at risk from this disease, so they will be last in the vaccination queue. The virus is most dangerous in the over-80s, who number around 3.2 million. Add the 420,000 in care homes (there will be some overlap) and the three million people employed in health and social care – and that’s roughly 6.6 million in total. Vaccinating these groups is the top priority. All going well, they should mostly be safe from severe disease from some point in February. Which will hopefully mean that a full-scale lockdown will no longer be required.

Then once all over-65s and people with pre-existing health conditions – about 15 million Brits – are vaccinated, we should be able to return to Tier Two and Three restrictions by March or April, with restaurants and pubs open. And foreign travel may be on the cards too.

But for all restrictions to be safely relaxed, I estimate we need to achieve 70 per cent inoculation. That’s between 45 and 50 million people – which hopefully can be achieved by the end of June. Until then, it will be necessary to continue with social distancing protocols and the wearing of masks. And only when the vaccine has been provided to everyone who requires it should we think about allowing mass gatherings again.

All assumptions on timings of course depend on a super efficient vaccine roll-out, at a scale we’ve never done before. But if we all pull together and get vaccinated when it becomes available to us, the second half of 2021 can be very different to the first.

WHY I FEAR NEXT WINTER WILL STILL BE DIFFICULT  

Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at the University of East Anglia

A month ago I felt very optimistic about the approaching year, with every hope that the rollercoaster cycle of lockdowns and cautious re-openings would soon be over. Sadly, those hopes faded on December 19, when the Prime Minister warned of a new much more infectious variant.

Since then the news has got ever grimmer, leaving me feeling today – following this latest lockdown announcement – that any hopes we harboured of returning to something like normality by spring are nothing short of a pipe dream.

The problem is that we are once more facing too many variables, not in the least in terms of the large question mark which hangs over the efficacy of the newly-minted vaccines at preventing infection. While they are an undoubted scientific triumph, we only know for sure that they reduce the chance of people becoming severely ill, rather than contracting the infection.  

As the World Health Organization’s chief scientist Dr Soumya Swaminathan put it: ‘I don’t believe we have the evidence on any of the vaccines to be confident that it’s going to prevent people from actually getting the infection and therefore being able to pass it on.’

Alas, without reducing the risk of spreading the infection, we will not achieve herd immunity, and unimmunised individuals will remain at risk of becoming ill with the virus.

That, coupled with ongoing uncertainty about the new, more infectious South African variant and its response to the vaccine means that draconian restrictions like the ones announced by Boris Johnson last night are likely to be in place well into spring and beyond. Looking ahead, I fear next winter will be difficult too, with another increase in cases, hospitalisations and deaths, and likely more restrictions.

It will not be as bad as the year we have had, but we are very far from out of the woods and there are too many shifting parameters for me to be overly optimistic.

MASS TESTING WILL SAVE THE FESTIVALS  

Linda Bauld, Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University

With a strict lockdown, things should start moving in the right direction by the end of January, but there won’t be much impact on the R rate before the middle of February. We may be living with severe restrictions until the end of next month. By early March, we should start to see the vaccine programme having some effect. And if the Government succeeds in vaccinating every care home resident by the end of January, for example, then we should see the impact of that by late February.

I’m optimistic that by May to June, hospital admissions will have declined dramatically. By then, if the vaccine programme goes well, then everyone over 50 and with underlying health conditions should have been vaccinated – this group accounts for 95 per cent of Covid deaths. If we can get the R rate to well below one and are only seeing new cases occasionally, then we could have a summer that is nearer to normal. But mass gatherings like festivals can only go ahead if there is mass testing – people would have to have a negative test within 72 hours of attending. International travel should also improve if we could have airport testing and repeat testing, linked to a proper quarantine system with support for those isolating. But not until there is global rollout of the vaccine will we be able to travel freely between countries again – and that goes beyond 2021.

WE NEED TO IMPROVE TRACK AND TRACE 

Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of bacteriology at the University of Aberdeen

Clearly there is still a long, hard journey ahead in the fight against Covid-19. I believe we can only hope to return to some form of normality by next Christmas, and even that distant target depends on a number of factors, especially the success of the planned vaccination programme.

Its achievement relies in part on the capacity of the manufacturers to meet the colossal demand, a task made difficult not only by the pressures on global supply lines but also the requirement that every batch must be approved by the regulatory authorities.

But even if the vaccines are available in sufficient quantities, it will be a vast logistical operation to deliver them into the arms of the public. Then, we must also contend with concerns about the take-up, particularly among young people who are at little risk of serious illness even if they contract Covid and might, therefore, opt out of immunisation.

Nor will vaccines bring an immediate, dramatic reduction in infections. That is because the priority groups who will first be vaccinated – healthcare workers, care home residents, the elderly and vulnerable – are not super spreaders. Indeed many of them are already shielding.

It is only when the vaccines are given to the under-50s that there will be a truly significant impact – and that might take some time.

There are still many unknowns. How long will immunity last for each vaccinated individual, for instance – six months, two years, five years? And what about new mutations and variants imported from abroad? The scale of the problem means that in the coming months, tough interim measures will be needed, including mask-wearing, social distancing, strict controls on international travel and, regrettably, a full lockdown.

But lockdowns only work temporarily. Once lifted, the virus spreads. So this time it must be accompanied by a vast improvement to testing and Track and Trace. That is our only route to safety – and freedom.

 

‘The lack of local organisation is one of the real problems the Government has had all along and it is why ministers took the easy option of giving Test and Trace to Serco and private companies. 

‘We musn’t forget yesterday the Government had to go into lockdown because there is a crisis wave of cases heading our way over the next few weeks and that is going to be number one priority.

‘The NHS will be battling two fronts [rolling out the jabs and battling Covid] which is hugely risky. Never in a million years would I plan to do it this way. 

‘We’ve known for months and months vaccines were coming, there were over 200 in production and we knew most would need two doses.

‘But we seem to be making up the rules as we go along, all of these issues about the roll out of vaccines, where they will be delivered and who should get them should’ve been worked out and how many doses.

‘It’s a dreadful situation we’re in. It looks as if the Government is making everything up as it goes along, it’s purely in reactive mode with no strategy.

‘If we acted firmer and sooner [with lockdown] we would’ve had the capacity and space in all respects to run a highly efficient, successful vaccine programme.’ 

It came as Michael Gove today delivered a stark warning that lockdown will only start to be lifted gradually in March – and that timeline depends on the government meeting its highly ambitious targets for vaccination.

The Cabinet Office minister admitted there was no ‘certainty’ that the brutal squeeze imposed by Boris Johnson on England last night will be eased at the end of February as hoped.

The PM set a goal of giving first doses of vaccine to more than 13million vulnerable people over the next seven weeks, with doubts already voiced over whether it is possible. 

But Mr Gove cautioned that even in the best case scenario not ‘all’ of the curbs will go, as he braced the weary public for a long haul to combat the fast-spreading new variant of coronavirus.

In a round of interviews, Mr Gove said a review of the situation would happen in the February half-term.

‘We hope we will be able to progressively lift restrictions after that but what I can’t do is predict – nobody can predict – with accuracy exactly what we will be able to relax and when,’ he told Sky News.

‘What we do know is that the more effective our vaccination programme, the more people who are protected in that way, the easier it will be to lift these restrictions.’

The heavy caveats came as Labour swiped that the PM had ‘over-promised’ about the vaccine hopes when made another extraordinary U-turn by plunging the country into a March-style lockdown, saying the NHS risked being overrun within weeks if he failed to act.   

Just a day after he urged parents to send their children back, Mr Johnson declared in a sombre address from No10 that primary and secondary schools will be shut from today, with only the vulnerable and offspring of key workers allowed to go in.

Nurseries can stay open. But university students are being told to stay at home and study remotely, while GCSE and A-level exams will not go ahead as planned. 

Teenagers might not know for weeks how their exams will be replaced, with Ofsted expected to launch a consultation, although government sources said some ‘contingency’ plans had already been considered. 

Under the the new guidance, published overnight, non-essential retail, all hospitality, gyms and swimming pools will be ordered to close – with Rishi Sunak due to lay out another package of support today amid growing fears about the impact on the economy. 

Cafes, bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve takeaway – but in a tightening from the draconian measures last spring, they will not be allowed to serve any alcohol. Vulnerable people are being told to shield where possible.  

The public will once again only be allowed to leave home for one of five reasons: to go to work if essential, shop for necessities, exercise – allowed with one other person from another household, care for someone, or to seek medical help or flee threat such as domestic violence.

Communal worship can continue with social distancing in place. 

Those who break the rules face a £200 for the first offence, doubling for further offences up to a maximum of £6,400. 

The extraordinary third national squeeze will come into effect in the early hours of Wednesday after the regulations are laid today, but Mr Johnson urged the public to adopt the new rules now. MPs will get a vote on them on Wednesday when Parliament is recalled. 

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the crackdown was ‘essential’ and his MPs will support them, effectively guaranteeing their approval in the Commons. But he criticised the government for not changing course sooner and expressed serious doubts about the optimism over distributing vaccines.  

‘The prime minister said seven weeks – that’s to allow the vaccination programme to be rolled out for 13 to 14million people,’ Sir Keir said. 

‘That’s the ambition of the prime minister. I hope he is not over-promising. It’s going to be a struggle and we need to make this work.’

Senior Tory MPs had joined the Opposition in calling for the introduction of another national lockdown. But the idea of hardening the restrictions sparked fury from other Conservatives, who insist the country’s experience of the pandemic shows that lockdowns do not work and are crippling the economy. 

There are claims that at least two MPs have now sent letters of no confidence in the PM to Conservative backbench chief Sir Graham Brady – although the numbers are nowhere near the threshold to put his position in doubt. 

With his hands clasped together and seated behind a desk in Downing Street last night, Mr Johnson made clear there is no chance of them being lifted for at least seven weeks – and possibly longer if the vaccine rollout does not go well.

‘Our hospitals are under more pressure than at any time since the start of the pandemic. It’s clear we need to do more.. while our vaccines are rolled out,’ he said.

He said it would not be ‘possible or fair’ for exams to go ahead this summer as normal.

‘The weeks ahead will be the hardest but I really do believe that we are reaching the end of the struggle,’ he said, pledging that by mid-February the top four categories on the vaccine distribution list will have had their first jabs. 

There are 13.2million people in the top four groups on the vaccination list – care home residents and the over-80s, frontline healthcare workers, the over-70s and the clinically vulnerable. 

But the Prime Minister admitted that he could only give assurance that the situation will improve assuming that ‘our understanding of the virus does not change again’.  

He said: ‘By the middle of February, if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails, we expect to have offered the first vaccine dose to everyone in the four top priority groups identified by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

‘That means vaccinating all residents in a care home for older adults and their carers, everyone over the age of 70, all frontline health and social care workers, and everyone who is clinically extremely vulnerable.

‘If we succeed in vaccinating all those groups, we will have removed huge numbers of people from the path of the virus.

‘And of course, that will eventually enable us to lift many of the restrictions we have endured for so long.’ 

Mr Johnson said he was left with no option after being confronted with catastrophic figures about the burden on the NHS by science chiefs today. 

Hospital patients with coronavirus had risen by 40 per cent over a week, and are now higher than at the peak of the first wave. 

Rishi Sunak today announced another £4.6billion of bailouts for lockdown-stricken businesses as economists warned of the ‘colossal’ hit from the surging pandemic.

The Chancellor declared that venues hammered by Boris Johnson’s dramatic decision will get one-off grants of up to £9,000 to keep them afloat over the next seven weeks.

Some 600,000 premises across the UK are set to receive the cash, while another £594million is being pumped into a ‘discretionary fund’ to support other firms affected.

Mr Sunak also pointedly refused to rule out extending the massive furlough scheme again beyond the end of April, merely saying he would ‘take stock’ at the Budget in March.

However, businesses warned that the package is not enough, amid pressure for VAT and rates relief to be kept in place to stop a wave of bankruptcies.  

The latest huge intervention came amid fears that the lockdown will slash GDP by up to 10 per cent in every month it is imposed – although the respected IFS think-tank said this morning that the impact might be lower as businesses have adapted since the first squeeze in March.

It will also raise alarm at the state of the government’s finances, with IFS director Paul Johnson saying the scale of the economic damage was the worst ‘in the whole of history’. Public sector borrowing could hit £400billion this year, with Mr Sunak already having warned of a reckoning later to balance the books.

In his speech to the nation, the Prime Minister said the previous tiers would have been enough to cope with Covid as it was originally, but the new variant – which is 50 per cent to 70 per cent more transmissible – was spreading in a ‘frustrating and alarming’ manner.

‘As I speak to you tonight, our hospitals are under more pressure from Covid than at any time since the start of the pandemic,’ he said.

Mr Johnson said that in England the number of Covid patients in hospitals has increased by nearly a third in the last week to almost 27,000 – some 40 per cent higher than the first peak in April.

On December 29 ‘more than 80,000 people tested positive for Covid across the UK’, the number of deaths is up by 20 per cent over the last week ‘and will sadly rise further’.

‘With most of the country, or maybe under extreme measures, it’s clear that we need to do more together to bring this new variant under control while our vaccines are rolled out,’ he said.

‘In England we must therefore go into a national lockdown which is tough enough to contain this variant.’

Mr Johnson said parents ‘may reasonably ask why’ decisions on schools were not taken ‘sooner’.

‘The answer is simply that we’ve been doing everything in our power to keep schools open because we know how important each day in education is to children’s life chances,’ he said.

‘And I want to stress that the problem is not that schools are unsafe for children. Children are still very unlikely to be severely affected by even the new variant of Covid.

‘The problem is that schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.’

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