An army of more than 10,000 medics and volunteers has been recruited by the NHS to help deliver the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine, once it is given approval.
By Lucy Fisher, Deputy Political Editor and Sarah Knapton, Science Editor www.telegraph.co.uk
The Telegraph has learned that teams are trained and ready to begin giving the jab at sports stadia and race courses across the country, with a target of vaccinating at least a million people each week.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca jab could be approved early next week by the independent Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), after the final cut of data was submitted by the Government last Monday.
Officials have pinpointed January 4, 2021, as the date the rollout of the mass vaccination programme will begin.
A Government source said: “At the moment, we are operationalising everything for the 4 January for the first Oxford/AstraZeneca jabs in arms. You’ll see it everywhere, while we’ll also be carrying on with Pfizer.”
The source added: “Tens of thousands of vaccinators and support staff have been recruited.”
They are expected to be delivering at least a million jabs a week to the vulnerable by the middle of next month, once manufacturing has been scaled up.
Village halls, community centres and other local sites overseen by GPs will be used to administer the vaccine alongside vast regional hubs.
The Telegraph can also reveal that ministers are looking at proposals to triple the length of the time between taking a first and second dose of a vaccine in order to speed up the delivery of the vaccine before Easter.
It comes as frontline NHS workers have been told they will soon receive the Oxford vaccine, and amid calls for teachers to be prioritised alongside health workers for the jab to help keep schools open.
The head of AstraZeneca, Pascal Soriot, has also revealed the company has come up with a “winning formula” which has boosted the effectiveness of the jab so that it matches the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
Britain has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford jab, with 40 million expected to be available by the end of March. Manufacturing is due to scale up significantly from the second half of January.
The ease of delivering the vaccine, compared with the complicated cold chain required for the Pfizer jab, and low cost mean its approval is viewed as a game-changing development in Westminster.
The rollout of the Oxford jab is a core element of the Government’s exit strategy from tough lockdown measures, as concerns grow over the damage to the economy wrought by keeping whole sectors shut.
Ministers are aiming for all vulnerable Britons included in its priority list of nine vulnerable groups, which cover around a quarter of the population, to receive a first dose of the jab by the end of February, and a second dose by the end of March.
Once this feat is achieved, mortality from the illness will be reduced by up to 99 per cent.
It is hoped the tougher lockdown restrictions can be lifted at that point.
At present, 43 per cent of the population is living under Tier 4 restrictions, which require Britons to stay at home and the hospitality industry and non-essential retail to close, after emergency measures were implemented on Boxing Day ahead of the fortnightly review scheduled for December 30.
Ministers will still meet on Wednesday to review the latest data, with a series of other areas set to be plunged into Tier 4. Burnley, Cumbria and Lincoln are thought to be at risk of moving into the toughest tier.
On Sunday night senior doctors warned the NHS is in danger of being overwhelmed, as the number of coronavirus patients in hospital is about to exceed the peak of the first wave.
Former Tory party leader Lord Hague of Richmond last week warned the Prime Minister to undertake “a national mobilisation of resources on a scale never before seen outside of war” to accelerate the vaccine rollout in the face of the new hyper-infectious mutant strain of Covid-19.
Government insiders have credited Minister for the Vaccine Rollout, Nadhim Zahawi, UK vaccine taskforce chief Kate Bingham, and St John Ambulance, for scaling up infrastructure and personnel ready for the rollout next month.
A high proportion have been recruited by St John Ambulance, which reached out to its network of 25,000 volunteers, while also partnering with the Royal Voluntary Service, British Red Cross and other charities.
Ministers have a target of enlisting 10,000 vaccinators, 14,350 care volunteers to observe people after they have received the jab, and 6,150 patient advocates to welcome and process people arriving at centres.
Retired doctors and nurses, pharmacists and trained first aiders have been drafted in to administer jabs, while other members of the public have signed up as support staff.
A Government source also revealed that ministers are looking at proposals to triple the length of the delay between taking a first and second dose of a vaccine in order to give millions more a single dose more quickly, while waiting for more deliveries of doses.
Proposals to offer Britons only a single dose have been shelved, but ministers are examining the idea of extending the time between doses from between three and four weeks to around 12 weeks.
A Government source said: “Everyone will get two doses, nobody will only get a half dose, but it could be a longer period, up to 12 weeks, between jabs. You could get a better impact.
“The MHRA will look at this stuff and decide what’s the best thing to do to get the most effective vaccination programme in the fastest, safest way possible.”
However, the insider added that a longer delay between doses would become redundant once sufficient quantities of the jab became available, saying: “We’re getting the volume coming now with Oxford/AstraZeneca, so it could become academic.”
The Pfizer results were based on a regime of two doses 21 days apart, while the Oxford vaccine was given 28 days apart.
The MHRA determines the dosing regime based on submitted evidence, so moving to a single dose, or a delayed second dose regime, would be experimental and could leave the government liable to legal action.
While those waiting longer for a jab would not be disadvantaged in the long term, they would be more at risk in the delay period before the second injection.
However, the Government could decide to initiate a clinical trial within the general rollout and monitor the efficacy of a delayed second jab among consenting participants.
Previous studies of vaccines have shown that delaying a second dose does not usually result in reduced long-term efficacy.
Results from the Pfizer trials show that after dose one an efficacy of around 80 per cent was achieved, and this is unlikely to decline over time.