Shock news of a “significant reduction” in Covid-19 vaccine supply from the end of March has raised questions about whether the programme’s target dates will be met.
Some 25m people have so far had a first dose of either the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer vaccine in the UK, while just under 1.8m have had both shots. The government is aiming to vaccinate all over-50s by mid-April and everyone else by the end of July.
But what does the latest development mean for those targets? And what caused the issue in the first place? Here’s what we know.
Minutes before Matt Hancock walked out to greet the nation at the Downing Street press conference on Wednesday, a letter from the NHS to local health leaders was leaked online. It said that “volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained” for four weeks from March 29.
It added that people “aged 49 years or younger should not be offered vaccination” unless they are in a higher priority group, such as being clinically vulnerable.
The health secretary repeatedly dodged questions about the reasons for the delay at the briefing, saying only that “vaccine supply is always lumpy and we regularly send out technical letters to the NHS”.
But he insisted the UK is still “on course” to get everyone aged 50 and over vaccinated by April 15.
Almost half of the UK’s adult population have now received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, including 95% of those aged 65 and nine in 10 of those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable.
Labour claimed Hancock was not being open about the issue. Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said people would be “anxious and worried and called on Hancock to explain what was going on.
The health secretary obliged and admitted on Thursday that a batch of 1.7m vaccine doses have been delayed.
Nicola Sturgeon says Scotland will also have 500,000 fewer doses than anticipated over the next month.
So what has actually caused the delay?
Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, Hancock said the batch of 1.7m doses of the AstraZeneca jab had been delayed because of the need to “retest its stability” – and said it was “to be expected”.
“In April, supply is tighter than this month and we have a huge number of second doses to deliver. During April, around 12m people, including many colleagues in this House, will receive their second dose,” the health secretary added. “These second doses cannot be delayed as they have to be delivered within 12 weeks of the first dose.”
He said a delay in a shipment of the vaccine from India had also impacted supply, appearing to confirm a BBC report.
The delivery had been expected from the Serum Institute of India, the broadcaster reported, but has been held up by four weeks.
Earlier on Thursday, cabinet minister Robert Jenrick said the government had learned of coronavirus vaccine supply issues “in the last few days”, but suggested the problem was not due to reductions from a single nation.
The housing secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have learned from some of our manufacturers that there are going to be some supply issues in the last few days.
“A number of global manufacturers are experiencing issues.”
Pressed if the issue was vaccine coming from India, he said only: “It’s not that there’s any one factory responsible for this or any one country.”
What about the other doses?
The Serum Institute has agreed to supply a total of 10m doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine for the UK. So far it has delivered 5m. The rest of the UK’s supply is being produced domestically.
Despite Jenrick’s claim that no single factory or country is responsible for the supply issues, both AstraZeneca and Pfizer have denied they were facing any domestic disruptions and said they remain on course to meet their delivery commitments.
A statement from the pharmaceutical company said: “Our UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule.”
Pfizer also said it was on track to meet its delivery targets for shots in the UK in line with an agreed monthly schedule.
Moderna, which produces the third vaccine to have received approval in the UK, expects to begin supplying “a few hundred thousand” doses in its first delivery next month.
What does it mean for the rollout targets?
People in their 40s are likely to have to wait until May to get their jab, but the Department of Health and Social Care and Hancock himself say the programme is still on track to meet the target of offering a first dose to all adults by the end of July.
Speaking to MPs, the health secretary said: “We are on track for the dates in the roadmap and there is no impact on the roadmap from the changes to vaccine supply that we’ve been detailing in the last 24 hours.”
He added: “I also want to clear up some rumours that have been circulating and give people reassurance. There will be no weeks in April with no first doses. There will be no cancelled appointments as a result of supply issues – second doses will go ahead as planned.”
But Professor Martin Marshall, chair of the Royal College of GPs, said the supply issues are “a bit of a setback” and the focus will now be on giving second doses to people who were vaccinated earlier in the year.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Marshall said: “The impact of this shortage of supplies will happen on the group that we were hoping to start on in April, which is the people under the age of 50 without any pre-existing conditions, who are now going to have to wait until May.”
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the government’s Joint Committee for Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), said the disruption to supply meant the UK’s rollout would be going from “extremely fast to somewhat less fast”, rather than “juddering to a halt”.
Speaking on the Today programme, he said infection rates could be impacted but he did not expect to see an effect on hospital admissions, as those who are most vulnerable were being prioritised for the jab.