The UK’s health service is to suspend vaccination of people aged 49 and under, due to a significant shortfall in vaccine supplies.
In a letter sent out to vaccination project leaders, the NHS says it has been advised of a significant reduction in weekly supply from manufacturers from the week beginning 29 March.
It says the supply shortage is expected to last about four weeks, as a result of which “volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained”.
The UK alone has followed a 12-week dosing interval for both the Pfizer and the AstraZeneca vaccines authorised in the country.
The ramping up of the vaccination programme in January and February means the number of people requiring a second dose will double from the start of April, and the NHS has directed that this cohort be prioritised for the available vaccine supply.
This means no new bookings will be taken for people aged 49 and younger unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as clinical vulnerability or employment in the health service or as caregivers.
The health service has instructed vaccination centres to prioritise “short-life stock (vaccines close to their use-by date) to avoid wastage; put in place reserve lists of people who could be vaccinated ; and share longer-life stock between regional units so that supply and demand are better met.
The letter states “from today, the supply constraint means vaccination centres and community pharmacy-led local vaccination services should close unfilled bookings from the week commencing 29 March and ensure no further appointments are uploaded to the National Booking system or local booking systems from 1 to 30 April”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street press conference that the nation was “on course” to meet the target of offering a first dose to all over-50s by 15 April.
Local health leaders have been told to focus efforts on the top priority groups in the NHS letter, signed by Dr Nikita Kanani, medical director for primary care for the NHS in England, and Emily Lawson, chief commercial officer.
They may also need to redeploy staff working in vaccination centres to other settings to try and increase uptake among the priority groups, it adds.
“The Government’s Vaccines Task Force have now notified us that there will be a significant reduction in weekly supply available from manufacturers beginning in the week commencing 29 March, meaning volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained,” the letter states.
“They now currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply.”
The letter adds that inviting people for jabs who are not in the top nine priority groups is “only permissible in exceptional circumstances”.
It adds: “Those aged 49 years or younger should not be offered vaccination unless they are eligible via a higher cohort because they are e.g., clinically vulnerable, unpaid carer or frontline health and care workers.”
Ministers have pledged that all adults will be offered a vaccine by the end of July.
Asked about the issue at the Downing Street coronavirus briefing, Mr Hancock said: “Supply is always lumpy and we are on course to deliver the offer that everybody who is aged 50 and above will be able to get vaccinated by the 15th of April. I recommit to that today.
“We are committed to all adults being able to get the jab by the end of July and we are on track to deliver on that commitment.”
He added: “We regularly send out technical letters to the NHS to explain the ups and downs of the supply of the future weeks and what you are referring to is a standard one of those letters.”
He said there would be a focus on vaccinating the most vulnerable before moving on to the over-40s.
Additional reporting: PA
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