More than 25 million people in the UK have received a first dose of coronavirus vaccine but the country faces a looming squeeze on supply and a possible block on doses from the European Union.
The milestone was passed in the first 100 days of the vaccination campaign, but the NHS warned there would be a month-long “significant reduction” in weekly vaccine supply from the end of March.
A letter to local health leaders in England said there had been “reductions in national inbound vaccines supply” and asked organisations to ensure no further appointments were uploaded to booking systems in April.
The UK’s success in its campaign has also contributed to tensions with Brussels as European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned the bloc “will reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate”.
With the constraints on vaccine supply expected from late March, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street press conference he wanted to ensure “every last vulnerable person” receives a jab before moving on to the under-50s group.
“We will do all we can and do everything necessary to ensure the supplies that are contractually committed to protecting people in this country,” he said.
Mr Hancock said vaccine supply was “always lumpy” but insisted the April 15 target for vaccinating over-50s would be met after the NHS wrote to local health leaders in England warning that “volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained”.
The Government’s Vaccine Taskforce “currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply”, the letter said.
President von der Leyen said she wanted “reciprocity and proportionality” in exports, pointing out that 10 million doses of vaccine had gone from the EU to the UK.
Although Pfizer jabs were crossing the English Channel to the UK, AstraZeneca vaccines are not heading the other way, she indicated.
“We are still waiting for doses to come from the UK, so this is an invitation to show us that there are also doses from the UK coming to the European Union so that we have reciprocity,” she added.
Mr Hancock said the supply of vaccines to the UK from EU production facilities was “fulfilling contractual responsibilities and we fully expect those contracts to be delivered on”.
He said the UK had funded research into the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and had a contract for the first 100 million doses for people in the UK.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused the EU of “brinkmanship” over Ms von der Leyen’s stance.
In other developments:
– Government data up to March 16 shows that of the 27,032,671 jabs given in the UK so far, 25,273,226 were first doses – a rise of 433,320 on the previous day – while 1,759,445 were second doses, an increase of 95,799.
– A further 141 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, bringing the UK total to 125,831 by that measure.
– As of 9am on Wednesday, there had been a further 5,758 lab-confirmed cases in the UK.
– The European Union has set out its plan for coronavirus vaccine certificates that could be used by holidaymakers this summer.
– Former No 10 aide Dominic Cummings claimed Mr Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) was reduced to a “smoking ruin” by the coronavirus pandemic and its botched handling of personal protective equipment procurement showed the need for a separate Vaccine Taskforce.
The latest Public Health England data showed the impact of the vaccination programme on both protecting those who have received one of the jabs and on the transmission of the virus.
Mr Hancock said: “After a single dose of either vaccine, protection against Covid-19 is around 60%, that’s protection against getting it, protection against hospitalisation is around 80% and protection against death is around 85%.”
If you live with someone who is vaccinated, you have a 30% lower risk of catching Covid-19, he added.
“The vaccine offers protection to you but it also offers protection to people around you,” Mr Hancock said.
“This is the first data that directly measures the impact of the vaccine on reducing transmission and it shows that the vaccines are saving lives.”
The row over supplies of AstraZeneca vaccines to the EU comes after a series of countries in the bloc suspended its use, despite regulators insisting its benefits outweigh the risk of any potential side effects.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson told MPs he would be having the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
In a show of support for the jab, he told MPs: “I think perhaps the best thing I can say about the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine programme is that I finally got news that I’m going to have my own jab very shortly, I’m pleased to discover…
“It will certainly be Oxford/AstraZeneca that I will be having.”
Number 10 said Mr Johnson is expected to get his Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine later this week.
It is understood the NHS told the Prime Minister he would receive the AstraZeneca jab because of the public interest surrounding the vaccine.
But it is unclear whether Downing Street had specifically requested it.
On Wednesday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) again reiterated its belief that the vaccine is safe, though investigations are ongoing.
“WHO considers that the benefits of the AstraZeneca vaccine outweigh its risks, and recommends that vaccinations continue,” it said in a statement.