The NHS could vaccinate the entire population in five days but is being hampered by bureaucracy, a leading immunologist has claimed.
Sir John Bell, regius chair of medicine at the University of Oxford, said stubborn NHS bureaucrats were standing in the way of a high-speed mass inoculation programme that could prevent many further deaths.
“The NHS has the theoretical capacity to immunise everybody in five days if they want to, but I don’t get the sense they are really motivated,” Bell told the Times.
“Did you see the list of things you have to do to volunteer to help the inoculation programme? To impose it on people who are just sticking a needle in an arm is bonkers.”
A government website states that prospective volunteers need to live in England and be over the age of 18, use a smartphone, consider their own health condition in case they are clinically vulnerable, and be able to “go on duty as much as you possibly can”.
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The government should be reacting to Covid-19 as if to an enemy invading the country, Bell said, referencing Israel’s highly successful mass inoculations.
“People have rightly pointed to the Israelis, who have managed to immunise lots of people. You have to view it as if it were a war. The Israelis are good at getting on a war footing – everyone is waiting for the 2am call anyway. Here it is not clear whether it’s a national security issue, but it is. The economic impact is as bad as any war. You might say 100,000 dead is not as bad as a war but it’s still not where you want to be.”
Bell said doctors and nurses should not be blamed for what he regarded as the slow rollout of the vaccine across the NHS.
“I think the frontline medics certainly see it as an emergency – those guys are working harder than anyone I’ve ever seen. They are eyewateringly good, but you don’t get the [same] sense from the hierarchy in the NHS, the bureaucrats.”
Dr Richard Vautrey, GP committee chair of the British Medical Association, echoed Bell’s concerns about bureaucratic hurdles preventing a faster rollout.
“Doctors and their colleagues across the NHS want to get these vaccines into the arms of as many people as possible as quickly as they can. However, this crucially relies on supplies, which are nowhere near the levels they need to be yet,” he said.
“Meanwhile, the NHS has for too long been plagued by bureaucracy, and we need a drastic slashing of red tape to ensure that everyone who can safely administer vaccines, and is willing to help with the effort, is allowed to do so.
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“The vaccination programme is the most powerful weapon we have in our armoury in the war against the pandemic, and NHS staff stand ready to deploy it. Give us the vaccines and flexibility and we will do it.”
Ruth Rankine, primary care director at the NHS Confederation, said: “The NHS will do everything it can to immunise the population against coronavirus as quickly as possible and our members understand how important it is given how close frontline services are to becoming overwhelmed by the disease.
“If we are to meet the prime minister’s target of delivering doses to 13.9 million people in England by mid-February, without delay we will need more sites to come on stream, more vaccinators, and a more certain supply chain, all of which are thankfully part of the national plan.”
In the week ending 3 January, 308,541 people received an NHS vaccination for Covid-19 in England, according to NHS England data. This takes the total vaccinations given since vaccinations began on 8 December to 1,112,866.
A spokesperson for NHS England said: “Prof Bell’s reported comments suggest he may not know that at the current time there are not actually that number of vaccines available to the NHS to deploy. It’s best to stick to the facts, and they are that vaccine supply will be progressively increasing over the coming weeks, allowing rapidly expanding vaccinations.”
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