Up to half a million fewer doses of Covid vaccine will be supplied to the NHS next week as Whitehall sources admitted the target of vaccinating priority groups by mid-February was increasingly “tight”.
Deliveries of the Pfizer vaccine will be cut by between 15 and 20 per cent next week after the US firm announced delays in shipments because of work to increase capacity at its Belgian processing plant, sources said.
Boris Johnson announced on Friday that more than 400,000 people in the UK were vaccinated on Thursday in another record day for the national rollout.
"Our immunisation programme continues at an unprecedented rate," the Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference.
"5.4 million people across the UK have now received their first dose of the vaccine and over the last 24 hours we can report a record 400,000 vaccinations.
"In England, one in 10 of all adults have received their first dose, including 71 per cent of over-80s and two-thirds of elderly care home residents."
But Government sources admitted that scheduled deliveries of around 2.8 million doses of Covid vaccine to the NHS will be cut next week to just over 2.3 million doses, partly due to the Pfizer delays.
Ministers also suggested that AstraZeneca was behind schedule after pushing back a target of supplying two million doses a week from the end of this month to mid-February. However sources close to the firm denied there had been any slowdown in production.
The cut in frontline deliveries threatens to take the rollout under the rate of daily vaccinations required to hit the target of vaccinating 15 million people by mid-February.
In order to reach the milestone, an average of around 388,000 people would have to be given the jab every day, but the delivery of only 2.3 million doses would only be enough to vaccinate 328,000 people daily.
One senior Whitehall source said vaccine supply was “constrained,” while another warned the rollout in coming weeks would be “tight and lumpy”. It is understood that the programme is nearing just-in-time delivery, meaning doses are being supplied to the NHS as soon as they are ready.
According to delivery schedules published by the Scottish Government, the UK was originally expecting 2.4 million AstraZeneca doses this week rising to 3.2 million next week. Pfizer deliveries were expected to rise slightly from 1.5 million this week to 1.6 million next week.
However deliveries were already expected to fall sharply in three weeks’ time with AstraZeneca supplies dropping to 1.3 million and Pfizer falling to fewer than a million.
It came amid confusion over reports that promised vaccine deliveries had been sent from Yorkshire and the North East to other regions further behind in vaccinating the over 80s.
Asked by the BBC whether vaccine supply was being diverted from areas with higher rates of vaccination, NHS medical director of primary care Dr Nikki Kanani confirmed “yes”.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi denied the claims, insisting: "No vaccine is being taken away from Yorkshire and moved to other regions of the country. Yorkshire will get its fair share of vaccines.
"What you're seeing is the vaccine’s overall supply tightening. Both Pfizer – having to reconfigure its manufacturing – and also AstraZeneca/Oxford, where we were supposed to get two million doses by the end of January, it's now going to be mid-February.
"So vaccine supply is the limiting factor.”
NHS officials told MPs on Friday that Yorkshire and the North East had been supplied with 364,000 doses this week, but the number would fall to around 300,000 doses next week.
Ollie Hart, a GP in Sheffield, said his vaccination centre was “running at a trickle” and would not be operating for another ten days.
“This is the last day that we’ve got vaccine in stock and we’re having to do just 300 today when we could be doing 700,” he said.
“Surely we should be a bit more ambitious about this. If we had the supply we could do everyone over 50 probably within a month.”
— ollie hart (@olliehart7) January 22, 2021
Pfizer said the firm was still on track to deliver the agreed number of doses to the UK by the end of March, despite the temporary delays caused by a refit at its factory in Puurs, Belgium.
In other countries which approved the Pfizer vaccine after the UK, however, the disruption had led to widespread chaos and threats of legal action.
Italy said it would consider taking Pfizer to court after jabs fell from 80,000 a day to an average of 28,000 last Saturday. In Germany, where BioNTech is based, jabs have been halted in care homes and hospitals in some areas. Authorities in Madrid, meanwhile, said they had only received half the doses expected on the day Spain announced a record number of Covid cases.
In another blow, AstraZeneca said expected shipments of the Oxford jab to the EU would be substantially hit by “reduced yields” in the production process. A spokesperson for the firm added, however, that UK supply would be unaffected because the vast majority of Oxford doses are manufactured in this country.
Meanwhile in Canada, authorities have been told not to expect a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine next week. Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he did not accept the firm’s explanation.
“They were saying they’re reconstructing another line in Belgium – I don’t buy any of that crap. Bottom line is get us the vaccines. Simple as that. I don’t care what you’re building - you can throw any excuse you want at me I don’t buy it,” Mr Ford said.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “In the coming week millions of doses of the vaccines will be delivered and we remain on track to offer first vaccinations to the top four priority groups by mid-February.”
A Pfizer spokesman said: "We are continuing to liaise closely with the Government to deliver the 40 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that we have committed to supply to the UK before the end of the year.
"Because of the urgent need to vaccinate more people globally, we have explored innovative ways to increase the number of doses we are able to supply worldwide and we now believe that we can deliver approximately 2 billion doses by the end of 2021, up from our original forecast of 1.3 billion doses, which will allow an additional 350 million people to benefit from vaccination.
"To do this, we are taking a number of different steps, including scaling up manufacturing operations to increase dose availability and output, as well as adding further suppliers and contract manufacturers. However, this means that we must make modifications to the process and the facility that will require additional regulatory approvals to then quickly enable the increased production volumes for global supply.
"While we understand that any change to deliveries has the potential to create uncertainty, we can confirm that overall projected supply for the UK remains the same for quarter one (January to March). We are working with the Government and NHS on the short-term, limited impact of these changes to our January delivery schedule and to support the goals of the UK COVID-19 vaccination programme."
On Friday night it was alleged by The Guardian that internal guidelines meant foreign NHS workers risked being denied the vaccine. However these claims were strongly denied by NHS England and the Department for Health.