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Covid: UK vaccination programme getting under way

By Nick Triggle
Health correspondent

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
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The first people in the UK are set to receive a coronavirus jab on what has been dubbed "V-Day", as a mass vaccination programme begins.

About 70 hospital hubs across the UK are gearing up to give the Pfizer/BioNTech jab to the over-80s and some health and care staff.

The programme aims to protect the most vulnerable and return life to normal.

Grandfather-of-nine Dr Hari Shukla, 87, said he was "delighted to be doing my bit" by getting the jab on Tuesday.

"I feel it is my duty to do so and do whatever I can to help," said Dr Shukla, who will receive his jab at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle with his wife, Ranjan.

The UK will be the first country in the world to start using the Pfizer vaccine after regulators approved its use last week.

Vaccination will not be compulsory.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there was now "light at the end of the tunnel".

"We will look back on today, V-day, as a key moment in our fightback against this terrible disease," he added.

Those administering the vaccine will be the first to receive jabs in Scotland, while health workers will be first in line in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Today marks a huge step forward in the UK's fight against coronavirus."

But he added: "As the programme ramps up in the weeks and months ahead, it is as important as ever to keep to the Covid Winter Plan - following the rules in your area and remember the basics of hands, face and space."

Ministers have warned it could be Easter by the time restrictions are lifted in a significant way.

image copyrightPA Media
image captionRace relations campaigner Dr Hari Shukla, who was made a CBE in 2016, will be among the first to receive the Covid vaccine

NHS England's chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said the vaccinations were a "decisive turning point in the battle against coronavirus" and will continue "at least until spring", urging people to be "very careful" before then.

More than 60,000 people in the UK have died after being infected with Covid-19, according to government figures.

The government has secured 800,000 doses of this vaccine to start with, but orders have been placed for 40 million in total, enough for 20 million people as two courses are needed.

The majority of that is not expected to become available until next year, although government sources said another four million doses should arrive in the country by the end of the year.

image copyrightPublic Heath England/PA Wire
image captionThese freezers, at a secure location in the UK, can each hold more than more than 80,000 doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine

The government had initially been promised 10 million doses by the end of December, but problems with manufacturing mean the supply is going to be slower than originally hoped for.

'Incredible' NHS effort

Refrigerated containers holding the vaccine doses have been arriving in the UK over the past few days from Belgium, where it is made, and sent to the network of hospitals that will carry out the vaccinations.

Chris Hopson of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said there had been an "incredible effort" to start the vaccination programme so quickly given that the vaccine was only approved for use in the UK last week.

"This is our wonderful NHS in action," he added.

Hospital patients over the age of 80 are among the first people who will get the jab on Tuesday, along with the NHS staff who are carrying out the vaccinations.

Some of the most at-risk NHS staff will also be offered the vaccine and, in the coming days, care homes will be able to book their staff in for vaccination.

But rollout of the jab has been complicated by the need to store it at -70C and that it comes in packs of 975 doses, which cannot yet be split into smaller batches.

That has meant it has not been possible to offer it to care home residents in the first phase of rollout, despite the government's vaccine advisers designating them the highest priority.

The NHS is awaiting guidance from the drugs regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, to see what steps are needed to allow these batches to be split and sent to individual care homes.

That is expected to come in mid-December, which will pave the way for the vaccine to be offered to care homes and distributed to more than 1,000 designated GP centres.

Mass vaccination centres at conference centres, sports stadiums and leisure centres are also expected to be established next year.

The vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart, with the second dose being a booster. Immunity begins to kick in after the first dose but reaches its full effect seven days after the second dose.

Most of the side-effects are very mild, similar to the side-effects after any other vaccine, and usually last for a day or so.

The vaccine was 95% effective for all groups in the trials, including elderly people.

But it is not yet known how long the immunity it provides lasts, or whether it stops people from passing the virus on to others.

Clive Dix, deputy chair of the government's vaccine taskforce, said: "We may have to vaccinate every year like we do for the flu."

But he said getting to this point was a "great achievement" as vaccine development could take 10 years, but had been achieved in 10 months.

The hope is that the bulk of the most vulnerable groups will be offered a coronavirus jab in the first few months of 2021. But achieving that is likely to require approval of a second vaccine made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca.

The government has pre-ordered 100 million doses of that jab, which is easier to distribute because is does not need to be kept in ultra-cold storage and is made in the UK. The MHRA is currently assessing the data from trials on that vaccine.

Vaccination to protect people from coronavirus in the UK has been promised to all over-50s, as well as younger adults with underlying health conditions - about 25 million people in total.

Do you have an appointment to be vaccinated? Get in touch by emailing haveyoursay@bbc.co.uk.

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