British public likely to be among first to receive Covid-19 jab, Hancock says
People in the UK are likely to be among the first in the world to receive a coronavirus jab, the Health Secretary has said.
The UK’s medicines regulator could approve the Pfizer or Oxford jabs within days of a licence application being submitted due to rolling analysis of the data, according to Matt Hancock.
He said the military and NHS staff are on standby to roll out a Covid-19 vaccine across the UK from the start of December and will work “seven days a week”, with GPs, new vaccination centres and pharmacists all playing a role.
Mr Hancock said there were many hurdles to overcome before the “vast task” of vaccination could begin, including regulatory approval of the new Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and assessment of its safety data.
But he said the NHS was leading the work to get a vaccine to those most in need as soon as possible, including the elderly and health and care staff, though most other people will not get a jab until 2021.
Asked whether a vaccine could be available by Christmas, Mr Hancock said that was “absolutely a possibility”, adding that vaccination clinics would be open on bank holidays and weekends.
Data on the jab from Oxford University and AstraZeneca is just weeks away, with Sir John Bell, who is part of the Oxford team, saying he expects two or three jabs to be available by the new year.
Mr Hancock said the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been working closely with both Pfizer and AstraZeneca, gathering information as clinical trials progress.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The MHRA, which is one of the best medical regulators in the world, they’ve been working closely with the companies – with Pfizer and AstraZeneca – so that they’ve been looking at the data all the way through in what’s called a rolling review.
“(This is) rather than waiting, as is normal, for the end of the process, for all the data to be then handed over for them to start looking at it.
“So that means that the regulator will be able to make a judgment on whether this is clinically safe, and not just take the company’s word for it, but do that within a matter of days from a formal licence application.”
Mr Hancock said Oxford’s vaccine was easier to deploy than Pfizer’s, which needs to be kept at a temperature of minus 70C.
Pfizer’s jab is also being manufactured in Belgium, he said, but a lot of work had been carried out to deploy vaccines as soon as they become available.
“We’ll be among the first countries in the world to be able to start to do this,” he said.
“We may end up being right at the start of that.”
Earlier, Mr Hancock said experts needed to see Pfizer’s full safety data and he would not approve a vaccine until it had undergone all its safety checks.
The Health Secretary said that once a vaccine becomes available, it will be delivered through care homes, GPs and pharmacists, as well as “go-to” vaccination centres set up in venues such as sports halls.
“We will be working across the NHS with the support of the armed forces seven days a week, over weekends, over bank holidays, to get this rolled out into people’s arms as quickly as possible,” he told BBC Breakfast.
He added that children would not need to have the vaccine and it would be voluntary for adults.
“We are not proposing to make this compulsory – not least because I think the vast majority of people are going to want to have it,” he said.
However, he later told MPs it was not yet known what proportion of the population would need to be vaccinated to stop the epidemic.
While the vaccine could protect individuals, data on population transmission only came after a significant number of people had been vaccinated, he said.
The Cabinet minister urged people not to drop their guard over current coronavirus restrictions, saying Covid-19 is “still a deadly disease”.
And he urged people to be patient.
“We just don’t know” how many people will need to be vaccinated before life can return to normal, Mr Hancock said, telling Sky News he was “not going to put a date on” when life may get back to normal.
“This is promising news, but it is one step of many that we need to take to get out of this and to tackle this pandemic once and for all,” Mr Hancock added.
The Health Secretary acknowledged there was “enormous complexity” in administering the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to be kept in cold storage.
“Also, you can’t take it out of that freezer more than four times on its journey from the manufacturing plant into the arm of patients… so that brings its complications,” he said.
“I’m sure that the NHS is going to rise to this challenge of deployment, and we’ve been working on it for four months now.
“What I’d say is this is a promising step, but there’s many steps still to come.”
The UK Government has ordered 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine – enough for about a third of the UK population.
It expects 10 million of these doses to arrive in the UK before the end of this year, with people given two doses, 21 days apart.
Scientists have hailed the announcement from Pfizer and BioNTech as a significant breakthrough in the fight against coronavirus.
Stock markets rallied on the news, with the FTSE 100 jumping more than 5.5%.
Dr Richard Vautrey, chairman of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in England, said practices would “stand ready” to deliver a vaccine, with clinics potentially running from 8am-8pm.
In a Downing Street press conference on Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomed news of the vaccine breakthrough but said it would be a mistake to “slacken our resolve at such a critical moment”.
He urged people to stick with the rules around coronavirus, saying there was still a long way to go.