All adults in England – of any age – could start to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the end of January if supplies allow, according to leaked NHS documents.
Under the plan, every adult who wants a jab could be vaccinated by early April.
NHS England’s draft Covid-19 vaccine deployment programme, seen by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) and dated November 13, comes as regional leaders have been told to prepare large vaccination centres to roll out a coronavirus vaccine.
Pfizer together with its partner BioNTech is expected to receive US approval for its vaccine within days, with the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) also assessing the data for potential approval.
At a Downing Street press conference on Friday evening, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he had formally asked the MHRA to assess the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for use in the UK.
Mr Hancock said the Pfizer/BioNTech application to the US Food and Drug Administration had “given us the confidence formally to start the process here”.
The UK has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer jab and expects 10 million doses by the end of the year.
It has also ordered 100 million doses of a vaccine from AstraZeneca and Oxford University, which has shown promising results in clinical trials and is due to report before Christmas, and five million doses of a jab from US firm Moderna, which is not expected to arrive until the spring.
Mr Hancock said he did not want to “pre-judge” or “impinge” on the independence of the MHRA when asked how long its process could take.
He said the speed of the roll-out of a vaccine would depend on the speed it could be manufactured.
“If the regulator approves a vaccine, we will be ready to start the vaccination next month with the bulk of roll-out in the new year,” he said.
“We are heading in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.”
Commenting on how long the MHRA assessment could take, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said: “I’m not going to speculate on that. It will happen at the speed of science and we need to leave them to it and trust them to get on with it.”
The planning document from NHS England, according to the HSJ, relies on a range of assumptions including that there will be 75% take-up of the jab outside residential settings such as care homes and prisons, where 100% is expected.
The model also relies on more than seven million doses of a vaccine being available in December, with four to five million doses per week given to people, the HSJ reported.
The document, which was shared among senior NHS regional leaders on Thursday, comes as the head of England’s biggest NHS hospital trust said in a “best-case scenario” it could take until April to vaccinate enough people to make a difference to the pandemic.
Dr David Rosser, University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust chief executive, said: “It’s pretty clear vaccination is not going to appear en masse until probably the beginning of February at the earliest.
“It is encouraging, (that) there are signs we might have some vaccine to vaccinate care home residents and the most vulnerable before then.
“But the big truckloads of stuff is not going to come in before February – that seems pretty clear.”
The NHS England document sets out how those groups given priority for the vaccine could be vaccinated at the same time if stocks allow.
Interim guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the Government on jab priorities, has said older adults in care homes and care home workers should be vaccinated first.
All those aged 80 and over and health and social care workers would be next, followed by anyone aged 75 and over.
People will then be vaccinated in descending order of age, taking into account high-risk adults under 65 and moderate-risk adults under 65.
According to the NHS England document, care home residents and staff and healthcare workers could be vaccinated from the beginning of December, followed by those aged 80 and over from mid-December.
Everyone aged 70 to 80 could be vaccinated from late December and those aged 65 to 70 from early January alongside all high and moderate-risk under-65s
Everyone aged 50 to 65 could then receive a jab from mid-January, followed by everyone aged 18 to 50 from late January, the HSJ reported.
However, the bulk of this latter group would be vaccinated during March.
The HSJ reported that the plan would see 88.5 million vaccination doses delivered across England, with two doses per person over the age of 18, by the end of April.
An NHS England spokesman said: “These earlier draft slides are no longer up to date relative to the latest information from companies on likely supply schedules.
“As there is, of course, as yet no authorised vaccine in the world the NHS is having to plan for many different scenarios.”
NHS England has been approached for comment on what the current supply schedules from companies do say.
The leaked document suggests 33.9 million doses would be given at “community mass vaccination sites” run by GPs.
Around 27.7 million are pencilled in for “large scale mass vaccination centres”, of which there are expected to be around 40 to 50 across England in conference centres, stadiums and similar venues.
Some two million would be delivered by NHS trusts to their staff (between December and mid January), and roving teams would deliver 3.5 million to care homes, people who are housebound, and detainees.