The Government can’t afford to get the supply and delivery wrong
Mass vaccination is our way out of the utter misery of the coronavirus pandemic. The Actuaries Response Group calculates it takes as few as 20 vaccinations to save one UK care home resident from dying of coronavirus. Vaccinations also prevent people getting seriously ill and needing to go to hospital. Once Covid patients aren’t overwhelming hospitals across the developed world, the economy and all our personal liberties can start going back to normal.
The UK had a head start with mass vaccination thanks to quick work by our healthcare regulator, but quickly surrendered its lead to Israel. Our current vaccination rate is 200,000 people every week, and ministers are hoping to increase this to 1 million per week in the New Year.
However, modelling by the LSHTM shows that the vaccination rate needs to be at least twice this to avoid the healthcare system being overwhelmed by the new mutant virus in January. Even 1 million vaccinations per week in a country the size of the UK simply isn’t fast enough. We need to speed up.
On top of the lives lost to coronavirus and the chaos it causes in our healthcare systems, the economic costs are staggering. Over £300 billion has been spent by the government on extra Covid related costs: and by April this expected to approach £400 billion. Even more importantly, economic output has been drastically reduced by lockdowns and people’s fear of catching the virus. As Robert Peston has pointed out, almost any amount of money spent on ending this crisis by mass vaccination will be minimal, compared to these ongoing costs.
So, the UK government’s plan for rolling out vaccines in the first four months is not going to be fast enough to prevent hospital chaos, but we can afford to spend almost any amount of money if we get the economy back to normal faster. To get this right, the government needs to focus hard on vaccine supply and vaccine delivery.
The Oxford vaccine was authorised this morning, and it has been designed to be quick and cheap to manufacture. However, Bloomberg reported in November that only a fifth of the vaccine produced could actually be shipped due to the difficulty of manufacturing suitable glass vials. Incredibly, this means our whole economy is being put on hold due to a single manufacturing problem. A solution as simple as putting multiple doses in one vial needs to be considered urgently.
Finally, the government needs to speed up delivery. GP surgeries could easily be paid up to ten times more than the £12.58 planned to pay staff extra and open seven days a week in January. While civilian volunteer vaccinators are being trained, military medical staff could deploy to set up and run emergency vaccination hubs. Military logistics experts should optimise vaccine supply chains, just as they did during the NHS PPE crisis earlier this year.
The end of this crisis is now within reach, and every day of lockdowns and hospital chaos will be avoidable as soon as vaccine supply and delivery is working properly. The government can’t afford to get this wrong.
Jonathon Kitson is an independent researcher and forecaster. He has written on defence procurement, forecasting and vaccination strategy. He tweets @KitsonJ1