This is the news we have all been waiting for. The NHS has already been gearing up for this moment for some time. The venues are in place and there is provision for extra staffing, with even lifeguards and airline staff to be brought in to help with the effort.
But the biggest hurdle will be supply.
As of next week, the first 800,000 doses will be available in the UK, said Health Secretary Matt Hancock. People should wait, he added, to be contacted by the NHS.
First, elderly individuals, those in care homes and certain NHS workers will be prioritized, while more clarity on the priority list is expected later. The Pfizer/BioNTech jab is the quickest vaccine to go from idea to practice, taking the same steps that typically span 10 years in just 10 months to follow.
The UK has already requested 40 million free jab doses – enough for 20 million people to be vaccinated. With the first load next week and then “several millions” during December, the doses will be carried out as quickly as the business in Belgium can do so, Mr. Hancock said. But the majority of the launch, he said, will be next year. “2020 has been just awful and 2021 is going to be better,” Mr. Hancock said.
“I’m confident now with the news today, that from spring, from Easter onwards, things are going to be better. And we’re going to have a summer next year that everybody can enjoy.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson added: “It’s the protection of vaccines that will ultimately allow us to reclaim our lives and get the economy moving again.”
There will be three ways of vaccinating people across the UK:
- Vaccination centres “a bit like the Nightingales project and including some of the Nightingales”, said Mr Hancock
- In the community, with GPs and pharmacists.
Sir Simon Stevens, the NHS chief executive, said that the health service was aiming for the largest-scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”.
However, experts said that people do need to stay alert and obey rules to avoid the spread of the virus, including social distancing, face masks and self-isolation. “We can’t lower our guard yet,” said the government’s chief medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty.
The UK has been promised 40 million doses by the spring – enough to give the required two jabs to health and care workers and everyone over 65. But in the first few weeks of winter, our ability to vaccinate could easily outstrip supply.
Getting the jabs into the country remains a challenge. It is being made in Belgium. Could Brexit be an issue? The government is confident it has secure routes to ensure supply does not get disrupted.
The order in which people will get the jab is decided by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations, which is due to set out more details in the next few hours. But according to their current guidance, care home residents and staff, people over 80 and other health and social care workers are top of the list. However, the order could also depend on how easily the jab can be rolled out. The Pfizer jab needs to be stored at -70C, which is easier to be stored in hospitals rather than in the community, Mr Hancock.
Mass immunisation of everyone over 50, as well as younger people with pre-existing health conditions, can happen as more stocks become available in the coming year. The vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart, with the second dose being a booster. It takes a few weeks for immunity to build.
Nonetheless, major hopes are still being pinned to authorisation being given to the Oxford University vaccine so that rollout can happen as quickly as possible in 2021.