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Dismay at NHS England plan to slow north-west's Covid vaccine supply

Josh Halliday, Helen Pidd , Anna Fazackerley and Maya Wolfe-Robinson
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

Leaders in the north-west of England said it was “utterly inexcusable” for the region’s vaccine supply to be cut by a third next month as GPs voiced concern about the “chaotic” distribution of jabs.

NHS England did not dispute reports that the north-west, which has suffered more Covid-19 deaths per capita than any other English region, would have its weekly supply cut to 200,000 in February as other areas strive to catch-up to vaccinate the elderly.

Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale in Cumbria, said the move would “dash the only ray of hope” for a region that has seen nearly 15,000 Covid-19 deaths since the pandemic began, the highest in the country. He said it was “utterly inexcusable” and would widen the UK’s health inequalities.

It came as GPs across England told the Guardian their vaccine supply had “fallen off a cliff” in recent days without explanation. Others said the opening of new mass vaccination centres had led to confusion among patients and primary care leaders.

A GP in the north-west of England said one patient had mistakenly received two initial doses, both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, after being contacted separately by her regular surgery and then by a recently-opened national vaccination centre.

The concerns came as another 312,770 people were vaccinated across the UK on Tuesday, taking to the total to 7.6 million. Of those, 7.1 million people have received their first jab, meaning the UK will by Friday pass the halfway mark towards its target of vaccinating the 15 million most vulnerable people by 15 February.

Nicola Davies, a director of the Institute of General Practice Management (IGPM) and the manager of four GP surgeries in Cornwall, said it was the “64m dollar question” how the vaccine was being distributed.

She said: “We have absolutely no idea in primary care and this is one of our bugbears. Yet again the guys at NHS England didn’t involve us at the start. Primary care has got a proven track record in delivering mass vaccination programmes, if you look at flu vaccines, so would it not have been sensible to speak to practice managers in primary care and say: look guys, here’s the problem, how can we solve it?”

Working out the logistics of delivering the vaccine had been a “massive challenge” she said, admitting: “We are on our knees. This has been the biggest challenge that I have ever faced and I’ve worked in primary care for 36 years.”

Kay Keane, practice manager of a surgery in Stockport and another IGPM director, said the national booking system, Pinnacle, only alerts GPs a few days after someone has received a vaccine at a national centre, meaning many patients were receiving calls from their surgery despite already having the jab.

In Worcestershire, the opening of a mass vaccination centre in Malvern has been delayed by a fortnight because of vaccine shortages, according to an email seen by the Guardian.

The email, from NHS provider Vaccination UK’s head of HR, told prospective vaccinators that the NHS “unfortunately … have confirmed there has now been a 2 week delay in the programme due to vaccine shortages in the area”. The email said that the programme would therefore now begin on 15 February instead of 1 February.

Watch: 'Bad Batch' Of Moderna Vaccines Pulled From Distribution

Meanwhile, the Guardian understands that at least one GP-based clinic in the area ran out of vaccine supply on Tuesday for the first time, with three patients being turned away and told to return once new stocks were delivered.

Ollie Hart, a GP and director of a primary care network in Sheffield, said his area’s GPs were vaccinating 700 people a day on average – meaning they were on track to inoculate all over-50s in about a month, way ahead of schedule – before their supply “fell off a cliff” in the past week.

He said the “chaotic” delivery was incredibly frustrating for GPs, particularly as a new mass vaccination centre opened at Sheffield Arena on Monday.

NHS England said the north-west of England would receive “all the vaccinations needed” to offer a jab to everyone aged 70 and above as well as clinically extremely vulnerable patients, and health and social care staff.

Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, said he was reassured by NHS England’s commitment to vaccinate the first four priority groups by mid February but that the proposed changes were “a bit worrying”.

He said, “I’ve got my eye on it and I’m a little wary about it given the proximity to mid-February and the fact that at least 200,000 people still have to be vaccinated in Greater Manchester.”

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday evening, Boris Johnson cautioned that there would be “bumps” as production of the various vaccines got under way. The government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “It’s not surprising that the supply goes up and down a bit. There will be changes week on week and that’s to be expected.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was making “targeted deliveries” to areas that had not vaccinated as many of its most vulnerable residents but insisted that supplies to the north-west of England “will remain in line with the proportion they’ve been receiving” and that it would allow them to cover the four priority groups by 15 February.

She added: “From the outset we promised that vaccines would be distributed equitably right across the country, ensuring the most vulnerable people in each area are offered the vaccine first – and that is what’s happening.”

Watch: More than 100 million Covid-19 cases recorded worldwide