Pfizer Covid vaccine will reach UK care homes this month, government pledges

ITV News Political Correspondent Shehab Khan has more on the latest developments

The first Covid-19 vaccinations with the newly approved Pfizer jab will take place on Tuesday, NHS officials have confirmed.

But elderly care home residents - who had been first in line to receive the jab - will no longer be the first recipients due to issues with the transportation and storage of the vaccine.

The first doses have arrived in the UK and are being stored at sites across the four nations, ready be given to NHS staff, care home staff and the over-80s first.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma insisted to ITV News, however, that deployment in care homes across the country would take place in December.

  • UK care homes will receive Covid-19 vaccines by end of the year, says Alok Sharma

"We, of course, are going to make sure that we're going to be able to deploy this in care homes in the rest of the country - and in England particularly," he said.

Signalling Tuesday as the first day of deployment in hospitals, Chris Hopson - chief executive of NHS Providers - said the vaccination programme will be “a marathon, it’s not a sprint”.

Explaining the difficulties with rolling out a vaccine that needs to be kept at ultra-low temperatures, Mr Hopson told BBC Breakfast: "Think of a large pizza box, is the way that we’re describing it, that’s got to be stored in a fridge at minus 70C.

"To be frank, the only way you can really do that at the moment is to store them inside NHS hospital hubs."

There are issues with transporting the Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine due to its storage temperature Credit: BioNTech SE 2020

The health boss said hospitals were working out how many care home residents, care home staff and over-80s they can get to but added: "Each one of those groups has a different set of characteristics in terms of the logistical difficulty of doing the vaccination".

In addition, batches of the vaccine can only be moved four times and doses have to be given three weeks apart - "so it’s quite complex," Mr Hopson said.

"So, what we’re going to be doing is, hospitals are at the moment talking to care home providers to say how can we get your staff to come into those hospital hubs so we can inject them."

The government has not yet finalised its plan for vaccinating care home residents. Credit: PA

It comes as the British regulator responsible for approving the vaccine was forced to defend its "rigorous" process amid criticism from a top US Covid official.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has stressed the jab meets the highest standards of "safety, quality and effectiveness".

Downing Street has also waded in to defend the jab, with a spokesman for the Prime Minister telling reporters: "I would just point to the fact the MHRA is a world leader in its field and has followed rigorous international standards in terms of its assessment of the vaccine to ensure it meets the standards of safety and effectiveness and quality.

"The CEO of the MHRA has been quite clear that no corners have been cut at all."

On Thursday America's top infectious diseases expert, Dr Anthony Fauci, warned the speed at which the UK approved the vaccine could undermine confidence in the jab.

Dr Fauci told CBS American regulators would do a “more thorough job”.

Dr Anthony Fauci - Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the USA. Credit: AP

But the official later backed down from the comments, saying he was not implying sloppiness on the part of British authorities, in whom he had “great faith”.

The MHRA stressed: "We have rigorously assessed the data in the shortest time possible, without compromising the thoroughness of our review."

Explaining the speed at which a vaccine was approved, the regulator said: "Covid-19 vaccines, including this one, are being developed in a co-ordinated way that allows some stages of this process to happen in parallel to condense the time needed".

It stressed, however, that no steps had been "bypassed" in the process.

"No vaccine would be authorised for supply in the UK unless the expected standards of safety, quality and efficacy are met," it said.

Despite the good news of the approval, issues with the roll out of the vaccine were already arising before the jab had even arrived in the UK.

Elderly care home residents had been first in line for vaccinations, but that order of priority has now changed due to issues with storing and transferring the Pfizer jab.

The vaccine needs to be kept at ultra-low temperatures.

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab, enough to vaccinate 20 million people, with 800,000 doses expected to arrive by next week.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved by the UK's medicine regulator. Credit: PA

NHS England has confirmed the first 50 hospital hubs acting as vaccination points from Tuesday.

Wales is expecting to receive the first supplies of the Pfizer jab "in the next couple of days," First Minister Mark Drakeford said on Friday - with staff trained to give it and people expected to receive it from Tuesday.

While Scotland has pledged to deliver the jabs into care homes from December 14.

The first batch of the vaccine has arrived in Northern Ireland, the Health Minister has confirmed on Friday. With the arrival of almost 25,000 doses, the Department of Health has said vaccinations will start from early next week.

The UK government's Business Secretary, Alok Sharma, stressed on Friday that the “bulk” of vaccine rollout would take place in 2021.

Mr Sharma told ITV News he was "absolutely confident" the vaccine would start to be rolled out next week and said he was "hopeful" that UK would have secured "more vaccines" by the end of the year.

The confusion comes as coronavirus death toll in the UK passed the 60,000 mark, jumping to 60,113 after a further 414 fatalities were announced on Thursday.

While daily cases of Covid-19 in England have decreased to the lowest level since the end of September, according to the latest estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The Times reported MHRA head June Raine will conduct a round of interviews with regional radio stations in an attempt to convince people concerned about the vaccine - believing people are more likely to trust what they hear on local radio.

It follows Dr Fauci's comments to CBS News that Britain "kind of ran around the corner of the marathon and joined it in the last mile" adding: "They really rushed through that approval."

He warned the speed of the approval could damage confidence, telling Sky News: "When we did a survey here in the US, there was a considerable degree of scepticism and reluctance to get vaccinated and we were concerned that if we did anything that looked like it was cutting corners that would feed into the scepticism."

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

But in a later interview with BBC News, Dr Fauci said he did not mean to “imply any sloppiness”, adding: “I do have great faith in both the scientific community and the regulatory community at the UK.”

The World Health Organisation (WHO) offered a toned down response to the MHRA decision, simply stating the approval had been “acknowledged”.

The European regulator has criticised the approval of the vaccine using emergency powers, insisting that its own, slower approach is more appropriate.

The row was not helped after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson declared the UK is getting a Covid vaccine first because it is a “much better country” than France, Belgium and the US.

Mr Williamson praised the work done by the medical regulator to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use.