Johnson staggers from crisis to crisis unable to lead a team that can deliver, clutching at straws in the wind, then throwing them under a bus when things go wrong. Owl expects casualties this week.
We can’t hit Covid booster jabs target, warn NHS bosses
Chris Smyth, Oliver Wright www.thetimes.co.uk
Boris Johnson’s goal of giving everyone a booster jab by the end of the year is unlikely to be met, NHS leaders warned as huge queues formed outside vaccine centres.
Waits of up to five hours were reported at some clinics and the central booking website repeatedly crashed as it struggled to keep up with demand.
The UK Health Security Agency estimated that 200,000 people were infected with Omicron today, far more than previously known to have caught Covid-19 in a single day and suggesting that the variant has already outpaced Delta. The prime minister launched an appeal for vaccine volunteers to help the NHS “hit warp speed” on boosters. Councils, fire brigades and police have been asked to offer up any staff trained in delivering jabs.
Vaccination centres were told last night to be ready to run 24 hours a day and through Christmas as ministers insisted that boosters take precedence over routine care. Hospitals and GP surgeries were ordered to redeploy staff to support what Amanda Pritchard, head of NHS England, called “an immediate, all-out drive” on boosters.
Deliveries of vaccine doses to units will be doubled today and centres were told to put up tents and portable buildings to get through as many jabs as possible. Omicron is more transmissible than previous variants and better at evading vaccine protection. Data last week showed two doses offered minimal protection against the strain but a third jab could be up to 75 per cent effective against symptomatic infection.
Despite the vaccine mobilisation, NHS leaders fear they are being “set up to fail” by Johnson’s promise of a million jabs a day and a goal of offering all adults a booster by the end of the month. They said the booster programme may not be finished until well into the new year.
There were 397,532 boosters reported yesterday and the rolling average now stands at 425,869, about half the record daily total of 844,285 in March. It means 18 million people in England are yet to have a third jab. Johnson acknowledged that to hit his target “we’ll have to attain a pace and a number of daily booster doses that will exceed anything that we’ve done before”.
After Johnson made a televised commitment on Sunday night that all adults in England “will have the chance to get their booster before the new year”, NHS leaders clarified that they were not promising to jab all remaining adults in the next two and a half weeks.
They said the health service can only commit to offering people the chance to make appointments by the end of the year, with large numbers of jabs expected to be administered in January. Some may even run into February if people are slow in coming forward.
Javid suggested the target would be met if people had received a text from the NHS before New Year’s Eve, insisting he could not make promises about how many people would be vaccinated.
Challenged in the Commons on when boosters would be completed, Javid said: “There’s a distinction between the NHS being able to offer an individual a jab, so they might receive an email or text saying ‘please come forward’ … but it does take that individual to come forward.” Although 390,000 people booked online yesterday, the NHS website crashed repeatedly. People have been warned they face long waits if they do not book.
NHS chiefs believe it is feasible to reach five million jabs a week, a million more than the programme’s best week so far, but have resisted giving firm commitments. One senior NHS source said the vaccine target would be harder than adapting to coronavirus in March last year or dealing with January’s peak in admissions, expressing irritation at Johnson for not acknowledging this.
Ministers “have a duty to set realistic expectations so they don’t set up the public services they lead to fail”, they said, likening the pledge to Johnson’s promise last year of a “world beating” test and trace service that would avoid the need for further restrictions.
They added that there was also “a real question of how quickly the required increase can happen”, saying it would take several days even to know what was feasible given workforce shortages.
But the source also said that the NHS was treating the booster programme as an emergency akin to the arrival of Covid-19 itself, saying “I don’t feel ready to say a million a day by Christmas is ludicrous. It might just happen”.
A Downing Street source said Johnson knew he had set an “ambitious” target but stressed that “no one is going to get the blame if that doesn’t happen”.