Speeding up our Covid-19 jab programme is the only way to beat the mutated virus, experts warn 


The coronavirus vaccine programme must be speeded up, politicians and business leaders said on Wednesday night.

Jeremy Hunt led calls to accelerate the roll-out as the pandemic tightened its grip with a fast-spreading new variant.

‘Time is against us with this new strain so we now need a great national effort to turbocharge the vaccination programme,’ the Tory former health secretary said. 

‘The logistics will be complex but I have no doubt our incredible NHS can rise to the challenge: just look at the lightning-speed Nightingale hospital building programme.’

Jeremy Hunt led calls to accelerate the roll-out as the pandemic tightened its grip with a fast-spreading new variant

Helen Dickinson of the British Retail Consortium said action was needed because the expansion of Tier Four controls were proving devastating for high streets.

She added: ‘The biggest Christmas gift the Government could give us all is to put even more momentum behind the vaccination programme and more widespread testing.’

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged ministers to ‘pull out all the stops’ to accelerate the roll-out, adding: ‘The virus is spreading rapidly and this now a race against time with a new variant.

‘The vaccine offers the only way out of the pandemic and this cycle of lockdowns.’

More than 500,000 people have already received the first shot of the Pfizer Covid vaccine but plans for any acceleration depend on approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency may give it the green light soon after Christmas, according to Sir John Bell, a leading medical expert.

The Tory former health secretary said ‘time is against us with this new strain so we now need a great national effort to turbocharge the vaccination programme'

The Tory former health secretary said ‘time is against us with this new strain so we now need a great national effort to turbocharge the vaccination programme’

‘They got data quite a long time ago but that was the first set of data,’ the Oxford professor told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘They receive multiple sets of data. So we are getting to be about prime time now, I would expect some news pretty shortly.

‘I doubt we’ll make Christmas now, but just after Christmas I would expect. I have no concerns whatsoever that the data looks better than ever.’

The vaccine would boost efforts to control coronavirus because it is easier to distribute than the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.

The Government has ordered 100million doses, with around 40million expected to be available by the end of March.

Meanwhile, doctors warned yesterday that Nightingale hospitals cannot open because there are not enough staff to service them.

The enormous structures, which cost an estimated £220million, were hailed at the start of the pandemic as a solution to the growing crisis in hospital capacity.

But many are lying empty, with the London ExCel centre on ‘standby’ even as cases spiral in the capital. Centres in Birmingham and Sunderland are also on standby, while the site in Manchester is open for ‘non-Covid care’.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also urged ministers to ‘pull out all the stops’ to accelerate the roll-out

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has also urged ministers to ‘pull out all the stops’ to accelerate the roll-out

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the British Medical Association, said: ‘We started this pandemic with serious workforce shortages, with just under 40,000 nurse vacancies and over 100,000 unfilled NHS staff vacancies. 

‘This makes it very difficult to staff the Nightingales adequately. Doctors and nurses are already overstretched and cannot be in two places at once.’

Rupert Pearse, a professor of intensive care medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘We cannot shut down other patient services and redeploy staff to intensive care or respiratory wards as we did in the spring.’

An NHS spokesman said: ‘The Manchester and Exeter Nightingales are both admitting patients and all of the Nightingales in England are ready to support resilience in the NHS with some already being used for outpatients, diagnostics, and scans.’

Forget second dose for now to protect more patients, says Blair 

By Victoria Allen and Daniel Martin

Calls to use one coronavirus jab instead of the scheduled two are being examined by the Government.

Tony Blair says the change in policy would ‘radically accelerate’ the vaccination programme and end the lockdown sooner.

The idea, which has the support of some scientists, is being considered by officials.

‘We are now in severe lockdown until vaccination,’ Mr Blair told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday, saying the priority was to reach as many people as possible. He said it was important to determine whether the first dose of a vaccine achieved effectiveness of more than 50 per cent.

Tony Blair says the change in policy would ‘radically accelerate’ the vaccination programme and end the lockdown sooner

Tony Blair says the change in policy would ‘radically accelerate’ the vaccination programme and end the lockdown sooner

He added: ‘If it does, there’s a very strong case for not holding back doses of the vaccine, so that however many doses of the vaccine you get, you halve that for the number of people you’re vaccinating.’ The Pfizer vaccine, which is already in use, would fall within that category because it is 52 per cent effective after one dose.

However this rises to 95 per cent a week following the second injection. It is recommended that the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine be given three weeks after the first.

However trials of ‘mix and match’ combinations will be carried out in the new year, opening up the possibility that someone might have an initial jab of one vaccine followed by a different one. 

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, said: ‘Moving to a single-dose regimen seems a sensible tactic in terms of getting as many people as possible protected now, but the effect needs to be carefully monitored and plans put in place for later boosting of responses if necessary.

‘The vaccine that prevents cervical cancer, the HPV vaccine, was initially a three-dose regimen. It is so remarkably effective in preventing papilloma virus infection that it has now become a two-dose regimen.’

Calls to use one coronavirus jab instead of the scheduled two are being examined by the Government

Calls to use one coronavirus jab instead of the scheduled two are being examined by the Government

Some experts have suggested that immunity to Covid may not last as long with just one dose, meaning people would need a booster dose later on.

But the proposal from Mr Blair, right, has also been backed by Professor David Salisbury, immunisation chief at the Department of Health until 2013.

He said: ‘With current circumstances, I would strongly urge you to use as many first doses as you possibly can for risk groups and, only after you have done all of that, come back with second doses.’

Our only hope amid this horror? All hands to the pump

Commentary by Professor Angus Dalgleish

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.

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.

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

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

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.

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.

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

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.

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. 

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

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

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. 

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.

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

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. 

Chelsea veterans salute their early Christmas pressie

By Eleanor Hayward Health Correspondent

For hundreds of Chelsea Pensioners, it was the best Christmas present they could have hoped for.

Yesterday around 300 veterans received the life-saving Pfizer jab as part of the biggest NHS immunisation drive ever.

The Royal Hospital residents, who have served in Korea, the Falklands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and during the Second World War, included Bob Sullivan, a D-Day hero.

Around 300 veterans received the life-saving Pfizer jab as part of the biggest NHS immunisation drive ever

Around 300 veterans received the life-saving Pfizer jab as part of the biggest NHS immunisation drive ever

The Royal Hospital residents, who have served in Korea, the Falklands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and during the Second World War, included Bob Sullivan, a D-Day hero (pictured)

The Royal Hospital residents, who have served in Korea, the Falklands, Cyprus, Northern Ireland and during the Second World War, included Bob Sullivan, a D-Day hero (pictured)

Bob Sullivan said getting the vaccine was the best early Christmas gift he and his peers could hope for

Bob Sullivan said getting the vaccine was the best early Christmas gift he and his peers could hope for 

The 98-year-old said: ‘This year has changed life as we know it, causing uncertainty and worry. Getting vaccinated against coronavirus is the best early Christmas gift we could hope for and thanks to our nursing team here and NHS staff we will have a real spring in our step as we head into our locked-down Christmas.’

Pam Richards, 88, who served with the Women’s Royal Army Corp, said: ‘The vaccine is really important. You’re not just protecting yourself, you’re also protecting everyone else.’

General Adrian Bradshaw, governor of the London institution, said: ‘Today marks a new chapter in the hospital’s battle with coronavirus.

‘With an average age of 82, the Chelsea Pensioners are in the highest priority group to receive the vaccine. We all look forward to a better 2021 when they can be out and about representing the nation’s veterans throughout the country.’

Pippa Nightingale, the chief nurse at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital who is vaccinating the pensioners, said: ‘This is a real honour, they’ve fought to protect us and now we can return the favour and help protect them.’

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