Health chief says NHS can deliver vaccination programme because ‘army’ of staff been working on it for months
Here are the main points from the Downing Street coronavirus data briefing. It was the first of what we’re promised will be regular data briefings on Wednesdays from No 10.
The press conference was chaired by Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer for England. Van-Tam has been a regular at the No 10 press conferences with the prime minister and other ministers and, of all the scientists who have become public figures during the pandemic, he is probably the best communicator, combining clarity and authority.
It is not hard to see why Downing Street is so keen to have someone like him presenting is health message, instead of someone like Michael Gove or Robert Jenrick.
Van-Tam said he was “very reassured” that the NHS was ready for the mammoth task of administering the coronavirus vaccine. People had been preparing for this for months, he said. He said there would be a full NHS briefing on this next week. But he said:
If you didn’t understand just how many months people have been thinking about this, you would instinctively have worries about, do we have the refrigeration capacity required? Do we have the transport systems required to move vaccines around? Do we have the needles and syringes to do this programme at speed and pace? The answer to which is, I am very reassured on all of those points. An absolute army of people have been working on this for months, behind the scenes, quietly, well away from media attention.
I am absolutely convinced that the enormous NHS team behind this has grasped that nettle [the challenge of this] and understands the scale and challenge of the project, and is up for it.
He said the vaccination programme would be “innovative”, involving pop-up vaccination centres and the housebound getting the vaccine at home.
He said he was willing to volunteer to help administer the vaccine himself in his spare time. He made the point to illustrate how committed health professionals were to this programme. He said:
This is one of the most important, if not the most important, vaccination programme we’ve done for decades. And from that perspective I don’t mind telling you I’ve had the conversation at home; if I can help with this in some evenings and weekends doing some extra vaccinations sessions myself then I’m going to. That’s a given if I can get on the list and be useful.
Older people will get priority for the vaccine at first, but over time that could change, Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, told the briefing. The JCVI has already published interim advice on who should get the vaccine first. (See 10.16am.) But Lim said, in the second phase of a vaccination programme, the priority order might change. He explained:
In phase two of the programme it’s likely that we’ll prioritise individuals who may suffer because of the need for hospitalisation because of Covid or perhaps because of long Covid. The reason it’s not been decided is because we need to also balance the possible prioritisation of individuals who are transmitting Covid instead.
And he said there could be different priority groups for different vaccines.
Because vaccines may act differently on older people, that may of course impact on how we prioritise the use of vaccines.
As new vaccines become available we may prioritise vaccines differently for different people.
Prof Wei Shen Lim Photograph: Sky News
Van-Tam rejected suggestions that politicians or other leading officials, like himself, should get the vaccine early to encourage take-up. That would not be ethical, he suggested. He said, as a 56-year-old with one medium-to-high risk condition, he would like to be vaccinated early. But he went on:
If I could, rightly and morally, be at the very front of the queue, then I would do so, because I absolutely trust the judgment of the MHRA on safety and efficacy. But that clearly isn’t right, we have to target the most highest risk individuals in society and that is how it should be in terms of our system.
There is “absolutely no chance” that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) will compromise on safety standards in order to rush out a vaccine, Dr June Raine, its CEO, said. She said:
Although we have adapted our processes to undertake our rigorous review of effectiveness and safety in a rolling way, there is absolutely no chance that we will compromise on standards of safety or effectiveness.
Van-Tam said he was not aware of any plans to allow people to buy the vaccine privately and that he would not approve if there were. He said:
One of the things I like about the NHS is that it’s there for everybody, irrespective of their level of wealth or who they are in society. That’s a really important principle to me, personally … I think these vaccines need to be prioritised to those who need them, not those who can afford to pay for them privately.
Van-Tam says healthcare professionals understand how challenging this vaccination programme will be.
He says he has personally said if he can help, by doing vaccinations himself in the evenings and at weekends, he will. He says that is the approach of people in the health service.
Raine repeats the point about the same high standards applying whatever vaccine is used.
And Lim says the JCVI will advice the government in a timely manner.
That’s it. The briefing is over.
I will post a summary soon.
at 11.12am GMT
Q: How confident are you that the vaccine can be rolled out? And what will the impact be on GP services?
Van-Tam says the NHS will be giving a briefing on this next week.
But he says people have been thinking about this for months.
He says he is very reassured by the preparations. An army of people have been working on this, he says.
The models will have to be innovative. There will be some form of mobile, pop-up vaccination centres. And there will have to be home visits for the housebound.
He says the government has said distribution should not be a factor that slows down the vaccination programme.
Q: What happens if the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine only turns out to be 50% effective. The UK has bought more of it. Is there a danger of people who get that vaccine complaining they have had the less effective one?
Van-Tam says the 90% figure is an interim one. It could go up or down. He says that will be the case for all vaccines. It will take time for the final data to come in. Governments will want to start distributing vaccines before that final data is in.
Lim says the JCVI may consider what vaccines are best for which groups.
Van-Tam says they may have to take decisions based on interim assessments of efficacy. Speed and high up-take are important. “It would be very easy to let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” he says.
Q: Will you prioritise black, Asian and minority ethnic groups for the vaccine?
Lim says people in these groups are more at risk. But the reasons for this are complex. Some of it is to do with societal factors, like jobs. Some of it is to do with underlying health conditions. Some of it is to do with household size. Some of it is to do with health inequalities.
He says the JCVI wants to ensure every group gets access to the vaccine. But that might mean having to have special programmes for special groups, including community leaders. He says reducing health inequalities is an aim.
Q: Are we ahead of other countries in getting the vaccine?
Van-Tam says Pfizer/BioNTech have not disclosed what contracts they have with other countries. The UK has already bought 40m doses, which will be enough for 20m people.
He says it has said it will produce 50m doses this year.
Q: Have you seen the latest Pfizer data yet?
Van-Tam says he has not seen any new data. The only data he has seen is already in the public domain.
at 10.38am GMT
Van-Tam says the elderly should get the vaccines first.
But he says it is also well known that vaccines sometimes do not work as well on older people.
He says the vaccines he has seen data on show “good responses in the elderly”.
Raine says the the MHRA will look extremely carefully at the efficacy of vaccines on older people.
Lim says, because vaccines may work differently on older people, that may influence how they are prioritised.
Q: Will people be able to buy the vaccine privately?
Van-Tam says, as an NHS doctor, he values the principle that people are treated on the basis of need.
He says he is not aware of any plan to allow people to buy the vaccine privately. That would be a matter for ministers, he says. But he says he favours medicines being distributed on the basis of need.
Q: When will the UK return to normal? And how important will vaccines be?
Van-Tam says we do not yet know. We don’t know how effective the vaccine will be. Delivery will not be instant. And production will not be instant.
He says we do not yet know whether the vaccine will prevent transmission as well as illness.
But he says in the long run he think the vaccine will make a “very important difference”.
Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, says he has had friends who have suffered from Covid. He knows how important it is.
He says in the long run the programme may prioritise people with long Covid. But it may also prioritise people who are most likely to spread the virus. He says they have not taken this decision yet.
at 10.39am GMT
They are now taking questions.
Q: Can you reassure people the regulatory process will not be rushed?
Dr June Raine, head of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, says there is “absolutely no chance that we will compromise on standards of safety and effectiveness”.
Q: Should politicians and senior officials get the vaccine first?
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam says if he could get the vaccine early, he would. But he would have to consider whether that was morally right. He says people with clinical need should get it first. He says the “mum test” is important; he says he has told his mother to be ready, so when it does become available, she can get vaccinated.
Prof Jonathan Van-Tam. Photograph: Sky News
at 10.39am GMT
Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, is speaking now.
He says the JCVI advises the government on vaccination policy.
It has been meeting weekly during the crisis, he says.
He explains the interim recommendations, published in September.
Policy needs to be understandable and deliverable, he says.
He summarises the priority groups. They are, in this order:
1) Older adults’ resident in a care home and care home workers.
2) All those 80 years of age and over and health and social care workers.
3) All those 75 years of age and over.
4) All those 70 years of age and over.
5) All those 65 years of age and over.
6) High-risk adults under 65 years of age.
7) Moderate-risk adults under 65 years of age.
8) All those 60 years of age and over.
9) All those 55 years of age and over.
10) All those 50 years of age and over.
11) Rest of the population (priority to be determined).
Lim says age is by far the biggest risk factor.
at 10.41am GMT