GPs in England say inconsistent supply of Covid vaccine causing roll-out issues

By Dan Sabbagh and Jessica Murray

Inconsistent vaccine supply is making it difficult for GPs in England to book patient appointments more than a few days in advance, experts have warned, as the prime minister admitted there were significant disparities in local immunisation rates.

Doctors, NHS specialists and MPs told the Guardian that batches of the Pfizer and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine frequently arrived with only a couple of days’ notice, requiring last-minute planning and creating uncertainty for patients.

Insiders said the distribution system was operating on a “push model” meaning that doctors could not order the vaccine but simply had to be ready to be receive batches whenever the NHS was able to deliver them.

Ruth Rankine, director of the primary care network for the NHS Confederation, said “it’s no secret that consistency in supplies is an issue” and that the 800-plus GP surgeries already delivering jabs had capacity to do more if the drugs were available.

“The commitment I have seen in the NHS is staggering. People just want to get on and do this. What they are frustrated about is the supply chain is not within their control; it will be possible to vaccinate the 2 million a week needed if the supply is there,” the NHS representative said.

The impact is being felt around the country, with examples including:

  • In Coventry, out of seven primary care networks only one was distributing the vaccine as of last week, with practices having to cancel scheduled vaccination appointments due to supply problems. One GP was told vaccines would be arriving today, three weeks late.

  • A vaccination centre covering St Albans, north of London, set up by eight groups of GP practices, only able to operate one or two days a week because of a lack of supply, with deliveries often confirmed only a couple of days in advance. “They want to roll out the vaccine faster,” said local MP Daisy Cooper.

  • GP surgeries as far apart as Carnforth, north Lancashire, and Twickenham in south-west London reporting in the past few days that they cannot plan appointments more than a week ahead because they do not know what the NHS can supply them. “This is where pressure needs to be exerted on the politicians,” said David Wrigley, a GP in Carnforth and a vice-chair of the British Medical Association.

Parts of England are now being told they cannot start vaccinating those aged between 75 and 80, the third priority cohort, until other areas catch up to leading areas such as the north-east and Yorkshire. “We are told it is levelling up, but what is levelling up for one area is levelling down for another,” one GP said.

Other areas fear they cannot achieve the deadline of vaccinating the top four priority groups by 15 February. Derby and Derbyshire clinical commissioning group is understood to have completed less than 10% of its target so far, according to local sources.

Local shortages mean that some are being forced to consider riskier alternatives. Some Coventry residents aged over 80 were written to offering jabs in a large centre in Manchester, 100 miles away, despite a government promise that patients should not have to drive over 45 minutes, prompting Coventry North MP Taiwo Owatemi to complain that this was potentially “putting residents at risk”.

In the borough of Sefton, in Merseyside, it is estimated that 9,000 to 10,000 people a week would need to be vaccinated to hit the national 2 million a week target.

But last week the amount of vaccines available totalled 400, according to Bill Esterson, the Labour MP for Sefton Central, although the area has been given 4,000 this week and there are indications supplies could double again next week. “It looks like it is finally being sorted out, but we are frustrated with this delay”.

It comes as high street pharmacies will begin rolling out Covid vaccines with Boots and Superdrug branches among the six stores across England which will be able to administer the jabs from Thursday.

Andrews Pharmacy in Macclesfield, Cullimore Chemist in Edgware, north London, Woodside Pharmacy in Telford and Appleton Village pharmacy in Widnes will be in the first group to hand out the injections, alongside Boots in Halifax, and Superdrug in Guildford.

Boris Johnson was pressed to start publishing regional and local authority vaccination breakdowns at Wednesday’s liaison committee meeting by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt. “Why are the public not allowed to know anything except the most basic information?” the MP asked the prime minister.

In reply, Johnson promised the government would publish regional breakdowns “later this week” but admitted they were likely to show wide disparities.

When it came to vaccinating the over 80s, he said it was “more than 50%, well over 50% now in the north-east and Yorkshire” but added it was “less good in some other parts of the country”.

The latest figures show that 2.25m first doses of a coronavirus vaccine had been administered by Tuesday, an increase of nearly 175,000 in the last 24-hour period, a run rate of around 1.3m a week.

Johnson wants to give everybody in the top four priority groups a first immunisation by 15 February. That amounts to a single jab for 15 million people who are aged over 70, live in a care home or have serious underlying health conditions.

Ministers acknowledge there has been “lumpiness” in deliveries but insist there is enough vaccine supply in the pipeline to ensure the target can be hit.

However, although AstraZeneca confirmed it had supplied 1.1m doses to the UK so far on Wednesday, ministers have refused to provide any further details.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said it was working as quickly as possible: “Vaccines are being distributed fairly across the UK to ensure the most vulnerable are immunised first and all GPs will continue to receive deliveries as planned.”