British Health Secretary Matt Hancock turned up at a doctor’s office in London this week to highlight the start of coronavirus vaccinations by local general practitioners.
There was only one problem: There was no vaccine. It didn’t arrive in time for Hancock’s press event.
It was an embarrassing moment for the U.K.’s top health official and a reminder of the challenges Britain faces as it races to vaccinate some 15 million people by mid-February.
GPs like Dr. Ammara Hughes are crucial to the National Health Service’s plan to expand vaccinations from hospitals and clinics to doctors’ offices around the country.
“It’s just more frustrating than a concern,” Dr. Hughes told Sky News. “If we had a regular supply, we do have the capacity to vaccinate 3,000-4,000 patients a week … which would ease the pressure on the health service and we could get more and more people vaccinated quickly, and hopefully get out of the pandemic.”
To ensure vaccines get to the right place at the right time, along with the syringes, alcohol swabs and protective equipment needed to administer them, the government has called in the army.
Brigadier Phil Prosser is leading the army’s response. He is commander of 101 Logistics Brigade, which normally delivers supplies to British forces in war zones.
“My team are used to complexity and building supply chains at speed in the most arduous and challenging conditions,” Prosser said during a briefing Thursday. “In this case, the mission is to support the NHS in delivering the maximum amount of vaccine to minimize the number of infections and deaths as quickly and as safely as possible.”
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government as it battles a new, more contagious variant of coronavirus that has swept across Britain, forcing it into a third national lockdown.
The number of COVID-19 patients in U.K. hospitals is already 50% higher than during the first peak of infections, and deaths reported on Friday reached 1,325 — the highest number since the beginning of the pandemic.
The infection surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals, putting more strain on doctors and nurses who are already tired after almost a year of the pandemic.
“We are hearing about people being treated in ambulances and car parks outside the hospital because there’s no room inside to bring people in,” said Dr. Tom Dolphin, a hospital anaesthetist and spokesman for the British Medical Association council. “It’s getting to the point where we are struggling to maintain basic standards in some hospitals.”
The government’s goal is to deliver the first doses of vaccine to everyone aged over 70, as well as frontline health care workers, care home residents and anyone whose health makes them especially vulnerable to the virus, by the middle of next month. That’s more than 15 million people.
Since Britain became the first country to start a mass vaccination program on Dec. 8, the NHS has put shots in nearly 1.5 million arms.
It plans to offer vaccinations at hundreds of GP offices and community pharmacies. There will also be seven mass vaccination centers at convention centers and sports stadiums, as well as 223 hospital sites.
“This is a national challenge on a scale like nothing we’ve seen before and it will require an unprecedented national effort,” Johnson said.
But can the NHS deliver an average of more than 2 million shots a week for the next six weeks?
“My view is that the vaccine timetable is realistic, but not easy,” Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said Tuesday.
The U.K. has recorded nearly 80,000 deaths linked to COVID-19, the deadliest outbreak in Europe and the fifth-highest in the world. The pandemic has prevented families from meeting, put 819,000 people out of work and devastated businesses forced to shut by restrictions designed to control the spread.
While the government has agreed to purchase vaccines from seven different producers, U.K. regulators have so far only authorized use of those made by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.
Britain has the right to buy up to 140 million doses of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca shots, barely enough to give its 67 million residents the required two doses. Moderna’s 17 million doses won’t arrive until spring.
But supplies aren’t assured because of worldwide demand as well as the challenges of producing, testing and delivering the vaccines.
To stretch limited supplies, Britain has already taken the controversial step of delaying the second dose of vaccine for up to three months so it can give the first dose to as many people as possible.
While ramping up the vaccination program will be complicated, the structure of the NHS is likely to help it succeed, said Siva Anandaciva, chief policy analyst for the King’s Fund, a think tank focused on improving medical care in England.
“Primary care are the cavalry for helping to deliver the vaccine,” Anandaciva said. “The primary care workforce are key to this next phase of going through.”
But those forces have already been stretched by the pandemic and everyone in the NHS is tired. Even so, GPs will be asked to work more.
“They’re extending the hours to make sure as many people can get the vaccine as possible,” Anandaciva said. “So it is going to be a long slog for the next few months.”
But it is a bright spot at a dark time. David Halley, 83, was overjoyed to get his vaccine at his local GP this week.
“I don’t want to get sick and I’ve got family and grandchildren and so on, so it’s important,″ he said. “I did think … Is it fair for me to go? And then I thought, well, if I don’t, then I will occupy a bed in the intensive care unit that somebody else could be using and that would be a waste of time and oxygen. So best to do it.”