Vaccine chaos as UK reaches the eye of the covid storm

Image of a vaccine vial and needle
Photo by Emin BAYCAN on Unsplash

After a year in which the levels of government incompetence seemed truly “world beating”, it would appear our leaders have outdone themselves once more. Just as we were starting to see light at the end of the tunnel, or at least a ‘shortened tunnel’ through which we could move more quickly, we have been plunged back into the darkness. The vaccine programme that was to form a central part of our route out of Covid-19 has been thrown into total disarray, following a series of chaotic government announcements.

For me personally, 2020 ended with a degree of optimism. Both my mother-in-law and my youngest son’s partner had had the first jab of the Pfizer vaccine and both had appointments for their second vaccination in January. Of course, like everything else that 2020 threw at us, this only led to massive disappointment. No sooner had we unwrapped what we thought was the best Christmas present of all – vaccination of two of the most vulnerable members of our family – than it was taken away from us.

On 30 December, the half a million people who had already received the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine discovered that they will not receive the second dose within three weeks, as planned, but within 12 weeks instead. Having consented to a tried, tested and authorised vaccine programme – based on having two doses, three weeks apart – they will now become guinea pigs for an untested and unauthorised alternative schedule.

The aim, if would appear, is to enable more people to receive at least one dose of the vaccine as soon as possible in the hope that this will deliver some level of immunity. But the result is that many of the most vulnerable in society will now have no guarantees of Covid-19 immunity beyond the initial vaccine period. Worse still, by failing to vaccine people effectively, the government may instead create the conditions for a vaccine-resistant mutation of the virus.

On top of this, the government has now announced its intention to experiment with a ‘mix ‘n match’ vaccine programme, offering people different vaccines for their first and second doses. The original plan was to test this mix ‘n match approach under normal trial conditions, to see if immunity levels could be improved. But instead, on New Year’s Eve the government quietly changed the guidance, suggesting that on rare occasions people could be offered a different vaccine for their second dose.

There is no evidence that this will work, or even that this will be safe. It is totally untested. Rather than following the science, the government appears to have panicked in response to the climbing death rate.

This decision appears to have come from the vaccine task force – an initiative set up by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. Heading up the taskforce is Kate Bingham, a controversial figure according to the Financial Times, due to claims that she shared commercially sensitive information with investors. But then, she’s married to Treasury minister Jesse Norman, so may well be immune from any real damage.  

As Business Insider reports, “both experts and government officials agree that mixing two vaccines together in the hopes of providing people with more robust protection from coronavirus infections is still a risky, untested strategy”. Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England, told Sky News, “We do not recommend mixing the Covid-19 vaccines – if your first dose is the Pfizer vaccine you should not be given the AstraZeneca vaccine for your second dose and vice versa”.

Elsewhere, news that the UK is thinking of mixing its vaccines has been met with incredulity. The New York Times quotes Dr Phyllis Tien, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, as saying that officials in Britain, “seem to have abandoned science completely now and are just trying to guess their way out of a mess. None of this is being data driven right now … We’re kind of in this Wild West”. She goes on to say that, “The whiplash changes in guidance in Britain, many made without public meetings or strong data, may erode trust in vaccination campaigns and public health measures in general”.

But more than anything, this is a sign of how panicked the government is by the exponential rise of cases, and deaths, from this virus.

Yesterday, 53,285 people tested positive for coronavirus and 613 people died, bringing the total to 3,786 deaths in the last week. Across Europe there have been 552,404 deaths in total so far. The five countries reporting the most deaths are Italy (71,925), United Kingdom (71,109), France (63,109), Russia (55,265) and Spain (50,122) according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. But it’s the rise in case rate in this country since mid-December that is alarming as reported by the BBC:

This tells you everything you need to know and explains exactly why we are not welcome abroad. And that is before we really begin to see the results from families mixing over Christmas – a spike that will only really start to impact from next week. What we currently have may well be fairly mild in comparison to what is coming.

The situation is particularly dire in London. By New Year’s Eve, bosses at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel had to send around an email to staff saying, “We are now in disaster medicine mode. We are no longer providing high standard critical care, because we cannot”. Today, the Sun reported one intensive care unit worker stating that patients were “fighting for ventilators”, as the capital recorded high levels of the new ‘super-strain’ of Covid-19.

We are back in the eye of the storm, as NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens recently said. And we find ourselves caught up in a maelstrom where those we rely on to get us safely to port are exhausted, demoralised and sick. Without a functioning NHS we are quite simply on the rocks. And this latest debacle – guidance on vaccines without the blessing of Public Health England – just demonstrates the failures to steer mothership UK to safety.

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