Fears over coronavirus vaccine supplies as rate drops

Ministers are increasingly concerned about the pace of the coronavirus vaccine rollout after a reduction in the supply of Pfizer-Biontech jabs.

Steven Swinford, Deputy Political Editor | Chris Smyth, Whitehall Editor www.thetimes.co.uk

The number of people receiving their first dose on Monday fell for the third day in a row to 204,076 from a high of 324,000 on Friday.

Pfizer said supplies of vaccine would be lower this month and next as it was upgrading its factory in Belgium before increasing production in March.

A government source said that the supply had become “very constrained” with ministers concerned about meeting the target to vaccinate 15 million people in the four most vulnerable groups by mid-February. “It’s going to be very, very tight,” the source said.

In an attempt to scale up the rollout dozens of pharmacies will start offering coronavirus jabs this week in blackspots where large numbers of over-80s are unvaccinated. The pharmacies will step in where GPs have been reluctant to set up vaccination centres.

One government source said they were still “confident” about hitting the February 15 target, but that the delay in the supply of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine made it more challenging.

There are also concerns about the rollout of the Oxford-Astrazeneca vaccine. Ministers had expected to receive two million doses a week this month, but Astrazeneca suggested that it may not hit that target until mid-February.

Britain has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer-Biontech vaccine and 100 million of the Oxford one. Ministers had hoped to distribute more than a million this week.

However, last Friday Pfizer said that it was reducing deliveries for the next three to four weeks while it made improvements to its factory in Puurs, Belgium. It said that although the move would lead to a “significant increase” in doses available in late February and March, it would “temporarily impact” shipments this month and in early February.

Pfizer said that it understood the change “has the potential to create uncertainty”. It was committed to delivering the same number of doses between January and March but said they would be “phased differently”.

London and the east of England have been lagging behind in the early stages of vaccination but officials are confident they will catch up within weeks.

At present only seven pharmacies in England have been authorised to carry out jabs. That number will rise by 63 next week and 130 the following week.

Although the government is on track to reach all care homes by next week and all over-80s shortly afterwards, concern is growing over the reluctance of some healthcare staff to accept the vaccine and plans are being made for a new push to counter misinformation.

In some parts of the country all over-80s have been vaccinated and the over-70s are being offered appointments, along with the clinically vulnerable. In other areas fewer than half of octogenarians have been reached.

London and the east of England have been slowest, with only 388,437 and 393,916 first doses administered respectively, compared with 713,602 in the Midlands.

The prime minister’s spokesman insisted yesterday that “all areas have had equal access to supply” but promised that more jabs would go to areas falling behind. “We will ensure that we provide more supply and support to those areas that have more to do,” he said…..