The UK has embarked on the world’s first mass coronavirus vaccination campaign with a fully tested jab, after a 90-year-old grandmother received the inaugural dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine outside clinical trials.
The first 800,000 doses of that vaccine arrived in the UK last week and at 6.31am on Tuesday Margaret Keenan was inoculated at her local hospital in Coventry, becoming the first to benefit from the biggest ever vaccination campaign run by the country’s taxpayer-funded health service.
The rollout of vaccinations across the country will start taking place in about 50 hospitals, with more to be added in the coming weeks and months. The vaccine will also be offered in around 1,000 GP-led centres to supplement the hospitals from December 14.
Speaking from Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospital in London, Boris Johnson, UK prime minister, said it was “very exciting” to meet some of the first individuals to be vaccinated. It was “amazing to see this shot in the arm for the entire nation but we can’t afford to relax now”, Mr Johnson added.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, raised hopes of a normal summer next year for millions of Britons. “We think that from the spring things can start getting back to normal,” he told the BBC’s Today Programme. “I have great hopes for summer 2021.”
However, huge logistical challenges remain as the vaccine, which must be kept at ultra-low temperatures, is distributed across the country. Ministers are also walking a delicate tightrope as they seek both to celebrate a national success and ensure people do not abandon the social restrictions put in place by the government to curb infection rates in the run-up to Christmas.
Through its Vaccine Taskforce, the UK government has ordered a total of 357m doses of seven different vaccine candidates, including 40m of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which last week became the first in the world to be approved after undergoing full clinical trials.
Simon Stevens, head of England’s NHS, cast the latest vaccination drive in the context of others it had carried out over the decades, which had eradicated smallpox, polio and tuberculosis. “NHS staff are proud to be leading the way as the first health service in the world to begin vaccination with this Covid jab,” he said.
Ms Keenan will receive a top-up dose within 21 days, and it will then take a further week to ensure full immunity. “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it — if I can have it at 90 then you can have it too,” she said.
The second person to be vaccinated at Coventry hospital was 81-year-old William Shakespeare from Warwickshire, the county of birth of his playwright namesake.
The practical challenges of rolling out the vaccine to more than 20m people included in the first phase of the programme remain considerable. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine needs to be stored at minus 70C before being thawed out and can only be moved four times within that cold chain before being used, meaning there are severe logistical challenges involved with distribution to care homes and GP clinics.
There have also been setbacks to the arrival of jabs from both Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford university/AstraZeneca: the latter has yet to receive regulatory approval.
Both are now expected to deliver up to around 4m doses by the end of the year — less than previously expected due to manufacturing delays.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT’s live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
The oldest and most vulnerable citizens are the first in the queue, with priority being given to those aged 80 or over, care home workers and some NHS workers who are at higher risk.
“This is a monumental challenge to do a mass vaccination of adults. It’s never been done before,” Kate Bingham, chair of the UK’s Vaccine Taskforce, told the Today Programme.
However, Ms Bingham said her “gut feeling” was that “we will all be going on summer holidays next year”.
“The UK is the most well-prepared country in the world. We really are punching above our weight on a global stage,” she added.
Mr Hancock added a note of caution, saying: “We’ve still got a long march to go this winter. People need to keep respecting the rules.”
Prof Stephen Powis, national medical director of NHS England, stressed that vaccination was one of the safest forms of medicine.
Speaking on the BBC’s Breakfast programme, he said: “And so if you get called — we’ll be calling you to come and get it — then my advice is come and get it.”
There have been more than 61,000 deaths caused by Covid-19 in the UK to date.