Exclusive: GPs leading the way in Covid vaccine rollout are forced to slow down

Bill Gardner
·8 min read
A patient receives their first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at a GP surgery in Horsham, West Sussex, on Saturday -  Christopher Pledger
A patient receives their first dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine at a GP surgery in Horsham, West Sussex, on Saturday - Christopher Pledger

GPs leading the Covid vaccine rollout have been forced to "pause" jabs to allow other parts of the country to catch up, The Telegraph can disclose.

Surgeries vaccinating hundreds of elderly people every day have had their promised deliveries cancelled amid questions over the speed of the national programme.

Drug companies manufacturing the vaccines said on Tuesday night that they could provide enough doses to be administered 24/7 after MPs called for more urgency. 

Ministers insisted vaccine supply was the "limiting factor" behind the delays, although on Tuesday night Whitehall sources confirmed plans for the pilot of a 24-hour vaccine centre to test demand.

A senior government source said: "As well as more daytime appointments we are considering a pilot where vaccinations are offered for longer hours."

GPs in some areas are ready to begin offering jabs to the over-70s but have been denied the supplies to do so by local NHS leaders, it is understood. One senior family doctor suggested the Government was "robbing Peter to pay Paul" by diverting jabs to the giant vaccination centres launched this week.

Government sources said there is a deliberate attempt to spread out "limited supplies" of vaccine nationally in order to avoid a postcode lottery and make sure the most vulnerable are reached

On Tuesday night, the NHS pledged that all GP surgeries would get vaccine deliveries this week and next. 

It came as Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, said on Tuesday that 2,431,648 people across the UK have been vaccinated so far – up 145,076 on Monday's total. 

That total is equivalent to almost one million a week, far short of the two million a week needed to hit a target of 13.4 million jabs by mid-February. Boris Johnson has emphasised that vaccinations are "a race against time", with Covid cases surging and hospitals on the brink of being overwhelmed.

A senior Government source insisted doctors were not being told to slow down but areas that had fallen behind were being prioritised. The source said: "Some areas started before others and therefore are further ahead in vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable.

"There is a limit on how many vaccines we have, so if an area has more progress to make in hitting the target they will get vaccines ahead of other areas that are more advanced. It's not a case of stalling or telling people to go slower – it's about proceeding at the fastest pace you can but doing it evenly between different areas."

The decision has meant some GP hubs chosen to lead the initial vaccine rollout in "Wave One" have been told to "pause" vaccinations. Dr Mark Porter wrote that his practice in the Cotswolds had already vaccinated the majority of over-80s and was ready to move to the over-70s and clinically vulnerable but had been asked by local NHS bosses not to do so.

"Our vaccine team is being put on pause as supplies and resources diverted to areas that still have higher risk groups to jab," he said. "I absolutely understand the decision but, if we had more vaccine, it wouldn't be us or them but everyone together.

"Politically [it is] more acceptable for GPs and hospitals to be seen to be slow... but not the super hubs. I am hoping someone better placed than me is going to reassure me that we are not robbing Peter to pay Paul."

Kay Keane, the director of the Institute of General Practice Management, which represents GP practice managers, said deliveries promised to "Wave One" sites had been delayed to allow other areas to catch up.

"The first wave sites are being slowed down so that we're doing everybody across the country at more or less the same time. There's only so much vaccine to go round," she said. "It's so your mother in Eastbourne gets the vaccine at the same time as her sister in Blackpool."

An NHS spokesman said: "Actually, all GP sites are getting vaccine deliveries this week and next. Vaccination sites are working hand in hand with GPs, pharmacies, hospitals and care homes to offer vaccines to everyone in the top four priority cohorts, saving thousands of lives."

Regional statistics will be published on Thursday and are expected to show disparities across the UK. Delivery needs to be accelerated in London, while the North-East and Yorkshire region is currently performing best, it is understood.

Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, this week described the supply of doses as the "rate-limiting factor" preventing acceleration of the rollout amid calls for 24/7 delivery of the jabs.

Whitehall insiders insist some aspects of manufacturing and checks cannot be expedited immediately. Because the vaccine is a biological product, each batch requires time to develop and not all checks can be conducted in parallel.

However, the drugs companies have said there are no problems with supply of either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines approved for use in the UK.

Sources said Pfizer, which is committed to supplying 30 million UK doses by the end of the year, was supplying its vaccine "a little bit ahead of schedule" while AstraZeneca has ramped up the "fill and finish" process at a plant in Wales working 24/7 to put vaccine into vials and package it for distribution. AstraZeneca sources said the company was "going as fast as it can", and to the schedule agreed with the Government.

Pfizer said on Tuesday it believed that it could deliver two billion jabs worldwide by the end of the year, up from an original forecast of 1.3 billion.

In May, Alok Sharma, the Business Secretary, said AstraZeneca would have 30 million doses available by autumn. In fact four million were ready in vials by Christmas, with another 15 million in frozen form still needing to be put into glass bottles. In November, Downing Street said 10 million Pfizer doses would be ready to go once approval was given, but in fact five million were available at Christmas.

Drugs companies are keen to point out they are not holding up the vaccine rollout in the UK and have suggested Whitehall is conflating supply with delivery as it tries to meet Mr Johnson's target of 15 million doses by mid-February

"I think ministers are using the word supply in its loosest meaning. People think supply means manufacture, but they are using it to include the process right up to putting the needle in the arm," said a source. "Any problems are logistical and that involves making appointments, getting the vaccines distributed."

The Government has so far resisted releasing the official data on how many doses of the vaccine are currently available and the rate at which production can be stepped up, but is facing growing calls to publish it to boost transparency and public confidence about supplies.

Professor Martin Marshall, the head of the Royal College of GPs, said he supported the decision to pause the rollout in some areas but warned that the lack of information was causing "confusion" for family doctors.

"Some GPs have really got their systems very slick and are vaccinating at a very fast pace," he told The Telegraph. "But I think it would be a problem if you have a 90-year-old in Cornwall who hasn't got a vaccine, while 70-year-olds in Gloucester are getting a vaccine. 

"However frustrating it is for practices, I support the NHS's desire to make sure supplies are in the right place, according to the JCVI [joint committee on vaccination and immunisation] priority list."

On Tuesday, Mark Harper, the chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, urged ministers to "set out what the pipeline looks like" to reassure Britons that the rollout of the vaccines will hit the targets.

He accepted ministers' arguments that releasing data about the exact number of doses going to each location could prove a security risk, saying: "I get that, but I don't understand why there's a problem with saying that we've got an agreement with AstraZeneca to supply us with this many doses over this period.

"If they're confident they can do 15 million doses by February 15 and they have the doses to do that, presuming they're not lying, then that must mean they've got the supplies."

Mr Harper said that, once supply is scaled up, the Government should look to have vaccine centres operating 24 hours a day, adding: "At the moment, the limiting factor is the supply of the vaccine. Opening 24/7 isn't going to help you get the people vaccinated. But at some point you're going to get to a point where actually operating 24/7 is going to be helpful in getting the vaccine rolled out more quickly."

Whitehall sources confirmed on Tuesday night that ministers want to pilot a 24-hour vaccine centre to test demand.  A senior Government source said: "As well as more daytime appointments, we are considering a pilot where vaccinations are offered for longer hours."

There have also been calls for the police to be prioritised amid concerns over a high rate of absence due to sickness in some forces.