'Biggest vaccination campaign' in UK history to begin Tuesday as hospitals prepare for first Covid-19 jab rollout

Video report by ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan

Hospitals across the country are preparing for the "beginning of the biggest vaccination campaign" in UK history ahead of the first patients being given the Covid-19 jab.

Speaking just hours before the vaccine rollout begins, NHS England CEO Sir Simon Stevens said Tuesday marked “a decisive turning point in the battle” against the virus.

But health officials warned the rollout would be a “marathon not a sprint” and urged people over 80 not to be worried if they are not called for the Covid-19 vaccine this month as the vast majority will have to wait until the new year to receive the jab.

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Sir Simon said there is “every prospect” that by next spring the high-risk vulnerable groups, as identified by the medical experts, will all have been vaccinated, but that "in the meantime, we’re going to have to continue to be very careful".

"But if we do that I think there’s every chance that we will look back on tomorrow as marking a decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus," he said.

Sir Simon said he is confident that vaccinations can begin to be offered in care homes “well before Christmas”.

But he cautioned that it will take “some weeks and months as vaccine supply becomes available for GPs and hospitals and pharmacists to reach all of the most vulnerable”.

Vaccinations will be administered at dozens of hospital hubs from Tuesday – reportedly dubbed “V-Day” by Health Secretary Matt Hancock – with people aged 80 and older, care home workers and NHS workers who are at higher risk at the front of the queue.

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The Government expects “the majority” of vulnerable people will be vaccinated in January and February, although Downing Street would not confirm whether they were expecting all 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine to arrive by the end of the year.

Croydon University Hospital in south London was one of the first hospitals to take delivery of the vaccine over the weekend, with similar scenes unfolding around the country ahead of the rollout.

Mr Hancock said Monday that it was "the beginning of the end of this pandemic". 

Husband and wife Hari and Ranjan Shukla are set for their first doses on Tuesday in Newcastle and said they feel “the crisis is going to come to an end.”Mr Shukla, who said he got the call on Friday from his doctor, said on Monday: “I said it’s an excellent idea, we will certainly do whatever we can because we are very excited about it.“When we heard that we’ve got the vaccine now, we felt that the crisis is going to come to an end.”He added: “I was very excited I got the opportunity of joining in and taking part, so we are very, very pleased and happy and excited as well.”

Croydon University Hospital, which has received the first batch of Covid-19 vaccinations to be delivered to the area Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said people need to “hang fire” and be assured they have not been forgotten if they have not received a letter or a phone call about the jab.

He added: “People really shouldn’t worry if they’re over 80 and they haven’t had a letter.

“I’m sure there will be communications over the next few weeks that will tell people how quickly we are getting through the over-80s, and there will be plenty of communications to say, at the right point, if you haven’t had a letter then you should talk to your GP, but we are many weeks away from that.

“So as I said people just need to hang fire and wait for a proactive communication."

A card will be given to patients following a vaccination. Credit: PA

The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, enough to vaccinate 20 million people, as people need to receive two doses, but the Prime Minister's spokesperson said delivery would depend on "the manufacturing process as we move forward through December."

Downing Street did not deny that RAF flights could be used to bring supplies of the vaccine over from mainland Europe if there were problems at ports caused by a no-deal Brexit.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman would not comment on specific plans for “security reasons”.

But “the military will have a role to play in what’s been an enormous logistical challenge and I’m sure they will continue to do so as we move forward”.

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Around 25 million people are covered by the 10 priority categories set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

The first vaccinations will go to care home staff and residents, NHS frontline workers and people aged 80 and over – around six million people.

GP surgeries and primary care networks in England have been told to be ready to start running Covid-19 vaccination centres by 14 December.

A pharmacy technician from Croydon Health Services Credit: Gareth Fuller/PA

There are 800,000 doses in the first tranche, meaning 400,000 people will be vaccinated initially.

There are challenges to overcome with vaccinating care home residents despite them being at the top of the priority list, but Mr Hancock said the government hoped "to begin the rollout to care homes by the end of next week".The government has previously pledged to start vaccinating elderly care home residents by the end of December.

Logistical issues mean there are difficulties in delivering the Pfizer jab to residents, as it needs to be stored at minus 70C before being thawed out and can only be moved up to four times within that cold chain before being used.

The vaccine boxes containing 975 doses will need to be split so they can be taken to care homes.

(PA Graphics) Credit: PA Graphics

The distribution of the vaccine across the UK is being undertaken by Public Health England and the NHS in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through systems specially adapted from those used for the national immunisation programmes.

On arrival in Croydon, the batch of vaccines was unboxed by a pharmacy technician wearing specific protective equipment to ensure safe handling at such cold temperatures.

After going through final quality control checks, batches will be placed in freezers to ensure they are kept at the right temperature until being used.

Specialist Covid-19 vaccine freezers in a secure location, awaiting distribution of the vaccines to the NHS Credit: Public Health England

There are 50 hubs in the first wave of the vaccination programme in England, with more hospitals starting to vaccinate over the coming weeks and months as the programme ramps up.

It is not known when exactly all 50 hubs will receive vaccine doses, as they are starting to administer the jab at different times, but deliveries are expected throughout the week.

NHS Providers deputy chief executive Saffron Cordery said many hospital hubs had received their allocation of the initial 800,000 doses, and she expected there would be up to four million doses in the country by the end of December.