Professor Chris Whitty said the shortage of jabs ‘is a reality that cannot be wished away’ (Picture: PA/Getty Images)
Vaccine shortages are likely to cause problems for ‘several months’, England’s chief medical officer has warned, amid fears staff at Covid ‘battlegrounds’ are at risk of ‘burnout’.
Professor Chris Whitty said the UK needs to urgently maximise the number of people who receive the jab as he defended a move to prioritise first doses for as many people as possible, delaying the follow-up vaccination for others.
He said a lack of global supplies will likely hamper efforts to protect the nation in the first part of 2021.
A letter signed by Professor Whitty and the chief medical officers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said: ‘We have to ensure that we maximise the number of eligible people who receive the vaccine.
‘Currently the main barrier to this is vaccine availability, a global issue, and this will remain the case for several months and, importantly, through the critical winter period.
‘Vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away.’
The deployment of the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will begin on Monday, almost a month after the rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
But second doses of either will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.
Pfizer/BioNTech said they are working flat out to boost production of their Covid-19 vaccine, but warned there will be gaps in supply until others are rolled out.
They warned against ‘alternative’ schedules, saying in a statement that ‘two doses of the vaccine are required to provide the maximum protection against the disease’ and that there is no evidence ‘to demonstrate that protection after the first dose is sustained’ beyond three weeks.
But Prof Whitty said the UK was at a ‘critical point’ in the pandemic with the spread of a new more infectious variant, and insisted the public would ‘thank’ and ‘understand’ the decision.
It comes amid a surge in cases, with the UK recording more than 50,000 fresh cases for the fourth day in a row on New Year’s Day.
Figures published on New Year’s Eve show just less than a third of acute trusts have more Covid-19 patients than at any point since the pandemic began, with union leaders warning about staff burnout, soaring sickness levels and ‘intolerable’ pressures.
Chris Whitty has warned vaccine shortages will delay the mass roll-out (Picture: No 10 Downing Street)
Adrian Boyle, vice president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said people were ‘tired, frustrated and fed-up’, while Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said the next few weeks would be ‘nail-bitingly difficult for the NHS’.
Dr Boyle told BBC Breakfast:’What is it going to be like over the next couple of months? I don’t know, I am worried.
‘We are very much at battle stations.
‘There will be short-term surges of morale but people are tired, frustrated and fed-up, as everybody is, whether they work in hospital or not.
‘The people who go into emergency medicine expect it to be tough from time to time.
‘There is a real worry about burnout.’
Nightingale hospitals are being readied for use to cope with the surge in cases (Picture: AFP)
Nightingale hospitals across England are being readied for use to cope with the surge in cases.
But questions have been raised over how the emergency facilities, built in April, will be manned.
The Royal College of Nursing’s England director, Mike Adams, said that staff leave was being cancelled to deal with demand in ICUs.
He said: ‘If we are having to cancel leave to staff these areas, the obvious question is where will the staff come from to open the Nightingales?
‘I am sure there will be moves to open some beds, there are some beds open in different Nightingale hospitals in different areas of the country.
There are fears medics will burnout as the second wave overwhelms the NHS (Picture:Reuters)
‘I have real concerns that the expectation that this mass rollout in capacity can happen is misplaced because there aren’t the staff to do it.’
A British Medical Association (BMA) survey also found that 67% of doctors reported that current levels of fatigue and exhaustion were higher than normal as they tackle a mounting second wave and a growing backlog of care on top of the usual seasonal demand.
Ministers say the next few months will be tough but have insisted the vaccine roll-out could allow for a return to normality by Spring.
But medical advisers have been less optimistic.
Last week Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer, said a shortage of ‘fill and finish’ materials needed to produce and package vaccines could also slow down the national roll-out.
More than a million people have now received their first coronavirus vaccination.
Professor David Salisbury, a former director of immunisation at the Department of Health, said he backed the revised Covid-19 vaccine strategy.
The associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Of course I accept it is inconvenient and isn’t helpful to have to change appointments and explain to people (about the delay in receiving a second jab) but the reason for doing this is to save lives.
‘We know how many have been vaccinated, and across the whole country it isn’t all that many, but every time we give a second dose right now, we are holding that back from someone who is likely, if they get coronavirus, to die, and much more likely to die than somebody who has already had a single dose.’
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