The Welsh Government is embroiled in a row over whether it is following a “go-slow” vaccination strategy.
Wales has faced criticism in the past week for vaccinating fewer people in proportion to its population than the other home nations.
Statistically the country is behind the other nations of the UK in delivering the first dose of the vaccine.
As of Saturday, 4% of the population in Wales had been vaccinated, compared with 4.1% in Scotland, 5.9% in England and 7.4% in Northern Ireland.
AN UPDATE ON CORONAVIRUS VACCINES IN WALES 👇 (a thread)
As of 10pm last night, 151,737 people have had their first dose of the vaccine – 5% of the population.
We have mass vaccination centres, hospitals and GPs delivering vaccines.
More people are being vaccinated every week.
— Welsh Government #StayHome🏠 (@WelshGovernment) January 18, 2021
First Minister Mark Drakeford dismissed the statistics as “very marginal differences” and said there was “no point” in rushing to administer all the available vaccine this week if it meant vaccinators were “standing around with nothing to do for another month”.
“The sensible thing to do is to use the vaccine you’ve got over the period that you’ve got it for so that your system can absorb it, they can go on working, that you don’t have people standing around with nothing to do,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“There will be no point and certainly it will be logistically very damaging to try to use all of that in the first week and then to have all our vaccinators standing around with nothing to do for another month.”
Mr Drakeford insisted Wales was “on track” to vaccinate the top four priority groups by the middle of February, with almost 152,000 having received their first injection.
Critics described his comments as “astonishing”, as 10 Downing Street waded into the row with the Prime Minister’s press secretary Allegra Stratton saying she was sure all devolved leaders wanted to “see jabs in everybody’s arms as quickly as is sensibly possible”.
Welsh Conservative leader Paul Davies said he was “flabbergasted” by Mr Drakeford’s explanation.
“This is a matter of life and death and that’s why it’s so crucial now that they get these vaccines out to people as soon as possible,” he said.
“To suggest that vaccines should be rolled out over a period of time so that vaccinators are not standing around with nothing to do is absolutely preposterous.
“If we don’t get the vaccines out as soon as possible, and into people’s arms as soon as possible, then unfortunately more people are going to die.”
Conservative former Welsh secretary Stephen Crabb tweeted: “Some astonishing comments this morning from Labour’s First Minister in Wales defending his go-slow vaccination strategy.”
Plaid’s health spokesman Rhun ap Iorwerth told the PA news agency Mr Drakeford’s comments were causing “unnecessary concern and eroding the faith” of the public.
He said: “All people want to know is that things are moving as quickly as possible in Wales. And the First Minister has said that things are not moving as quickly as possible, but that they’re moving as quickly as he has decided they should move.”
Mr ap Iorwerth added: “Before the First Minister talked about the holding back of the vaccine, I had expressed real concerns about the pace of rollout in Wales and the strategy for ensuring the most effective rollout in Wales.
“What the First Minister’s comments do is compound my concerns that there’s something wrong at the heart of Welsh Government’s vaccination strategy.”
Doctors also expressed concern, with the British Medical Association tweeting: “Extremely concerned the Welsh Government is spacing out the Pfizer vaccine to make it last until the next delivery.
“If Pfizer vaccines are available, second does must be given within the maximum 42-day timeline and all remaining vaccinations for staff must be accelerated.”
Welsh Government colleague Kirsty Williams, the education minister, appeared to contradict the First Minister when she said there was no delay in distributing vaccines.
“We are not delaying the use of Pfizer vaccine to anybody in Wales and we are as keen as anybody to get those vaccinations out,” she told the Welsh Government briefing.
Later on Monday, Mr Drakeford denied that vaccines were being held back in a video posted to Twitter.
He said: “Let me be clear. Nobody is holding back vaccines. All our health boards are receiving doses of Pfizer as quickly as they can use it.”
A Welsh Government spokesman said: “The Pfizer vaccine comes in large packs, which cannot be split and must be stored at ultra-low temperatures – at minus 70C.
“There are only two centres in Wales where we can keep them at this temperature. Once removed from storage, the vaccine lasts five days.
Some astonishing comments this morning from Labour’s First Minister in Wales defending his go-slow vaccination strategy. Over 80s in Wales desperate to know when their vaccinations will be starting.
— Stephen Crabb (@SCrabbPembs) January 18, 2021
“Every dose wasted is a vaccine which cannot be given to someone in Wales.
“Health boards are receiving all the doses of Pfizer they can use. We want to ensure a consistent supply of the vaccine to minimise wastage.
“Less than 1% of the vaccines have not been used, way below the wastage rates normally seen for vaccines.”
There have been a further 1,332 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 181,493.
Public Health Wales reported another 20 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 4,294.