Professor Angus Dalgleish asks is the vaccine rollout our only hope?


When Tony Blair starts lecturing the nation on how to manage the Covid mass vaccination programme, one might be forgiven for switching off.

The former prime minister has no scientific background but does have a notable talent for jumping aboard bandwagons.

But he is right to draw national attention to the issue of vaccine delivery. As even greater swathes of the UK are plunged into Tier Four restrictions amid reports of yet another new super-spreading strain of the Covid-19 virus, it is clear that a jab is the only way out of this nightmare.

When Tony Blair starts lecturing the nation on how to manage the Covid mass vaccination programme, one might be forgiven for switching off

Mr Blair wrote an online article this week in which he called for a ‘radical acceleration’ of the vaccine rollout. He argued that the ‘two-shot’ Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine should be administered in single doses, doubling at a stroke the number who could receive it.

He made it sound as if it was his own brilliant idea when, in fact, it is a proposal hijacked from scientists who really do know what they are talking about, such as the respected virologist Professor David Salisbury, former director of immunisation at the Department of Health, who is saying much the same thing as Mr Blair.

So it is definitely time to listen. The Pfizer vaccine is highly effective: it is estimated to provide complete immunity to Covid-19 in more than 95 per cent of cases, after two jabs three weeks apart.

But inevitably with such a new therapy, doses are in short supply and it is difficult to organise the vaccination of the first wave of recipients – millions of vulnerable, often very elderly people – in a tight timeframe and then call them all back for a second injection.

Crucially, the vaccine is reported to be effective in around 91 per cent of cases after one dose. It doesn’t take a maths genius to understand that by ditching the second jab, the NHS can double the number of people who get immunity. Not a perfect solution, but the surest way of doing the most good in the shortest possible time when the stakes are high.

I hope that before the end of the year we’ll have had approval for a second vaccine, produced by Oxford University in partnership with pharamceutical giant AstraZeneca, and a second rollout will begin.

I hope that before the end of the year we¿ll have had approval for a second vaccine, produced by Oxford University in partnership with pharamceutical giant AstraZeneca, and a second rollout will begin

I hope that before the end of the year we’ll have had approval for a second vaccine, produced by Oxford University in partnership with pharamceutical giant AstraZeneca, and a second rollout will begin

Since it is manufactured in the UK (unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is made in the US and Europe) it should be much easier to obtain in the necessary quantities.

The Oxford/AZ vaccine can also be kept in ordinary refrigerators, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech version which must be stored at minus 70C.

That said, we need both vaccines being administered in tandem nationwide because that is the only way to end the pandemic. Whatever obstacles present themselves, we must overcome them. 

And in national emergencies – and this is nothing less – the Army has the right mindset to achieve this. When a job needs doing, military personnel don’t stop and think of reasons why it will be difficult. 

They just get on with it – just as they did building the Nightingale Hospitals back in the spring and with the first mass Covid testing programme in Liverpool. Indeed, that’s the attitude the whole country needs – all hands to the pump. 

That’s not to say soldiers would be delivering the jabs. I’ve been greatly encouraged by the willingness of retired medics to sign up as NHS volunteers and specifically for the NHS Covid-19 vaccine team operation.

There are hundreds of thousands of such people, each with decades of rich experience, eager to help. 

But it’s so frustrating when they are ignored. I know of one doctor in retirement who volunteered, detailing how his knowledge and skills could be put to good use. He got a letter back inviting him to become…a parking attendant in a vaccination centre car park.

The former prime minister has no scientific background but does have a notable talent for jumping aboard bandwagons. Pictured: Professor Angus Dalgleish

The former prime minister has no scientific background but does have a notable talent for jumping aboard bandwagons. Pictured: Professor Angus Dalgleish

At least he got a response. Many of my former colleagues are still waiting for a reply.  And what about pharmacists? A medically skilled and knowledgeable workforce on the high street with access to GP computer records. 

Why don’t we make use of them? I’m pleased to see vaccination centres being set up in parks, although we need far more of them and to be working round the clock, not office hours.

Perhaps the Nightingale hospitals which have been mothballed could be repurposed? Even in the event of a post-Christmas surge of cases that sends more people to hospital, it seems unlikely that the Nightingales will be overwhelmed: they were designed for patients on ventilators, and the disease is now mostly treated with oxygen and anti-inflammatories. I’ll say it again: this is a national emergency. The Government must raise its game and fast.

That does not mean more scaremongering, Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s default position. Talk of a mutant new and more infectious strain ‘out of control’ was hugely irresponsible. He was at it again yesterday with dire warnings about a ‘South African’ strain.

He should heed the war time adage that ‘careless talk costs lives’. Even better in my view, he should step down. Mr Hancock has been one of the drivers of draconian restrictions and increasingly it is looking as if lockdowns are to blame for the new Covid variant that has taken hold in the South East. 

The Oxford/AZ vaccine can also be kept in ordinary refrigerators, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech version which must be stored at minus 70C

The Oxford/AZ vaccine can also be kept in ordinary refrigerators, unlike the Pfizer/BioNTech version which must be stored at minus 70C

It does seem to be more infectious than the original virus, and it appears to be spreading more in areas which were less badly hit during the first wave. That suggests the lockdowns in spring and summer have left people more vulnerable to the winter outbreak.

Worse, it implies that the virus has evolved instead of burning itself out. That is the price we are paying for staying indoors. We actually gave the virus time to adapt.

We can’t make that mistake again. It’s vital that we distribute the vaccines as widely and as quickly as possible, even if it means delivering only one jab instead of two.

People who have that first jab will, in most cases, be primed to fight the virus if they are exposed to it. They might suffer some milder effects, but in the great majority of cases they won’t be ill enough for hospitalisation. The NHS will be able to cope. And that has been the whole point all along.

n Angus Dalgleish is a professor of oncology at a London teaching hospital and signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration which calls for the protection of the most vulnerable rather than economically ruinous lockdowns. 

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