Care home residents are expected to begin receiving Covid jabs within days after all.
Officials have devised a way to split the Pfizer vaccine into small batches suitable for distribution to them.
Initial plans to make vulnerable social care residents the first to get the jab were derailed when regulators put a limit on the number of times doses could be moved.
The vaccine contains a fragile strand of RNA – the genetic material that carries messages between cells – sheathed in a droplet of fat.
Pictured: Alexandra Glenister is visiting her mum Jo Shepherd at Castle Grove Care Home in Bampton, Tiverton
That makes it very unstable and means it needs to be stored at a super-cold -70C (-94F) to ensure it does not break down before it gets to patients.
The logistics of transporting and storing a vaccine at such temperatures means the initial doses will be given out at one of 50 major hospitals across England.
It also meant earlier plans to make care home residents the first to get the jab had to be put on hold.
But health officials have now drawn up a new method to ensure it can get to the most vulnerable.
TOUCH IS SO INSTINCTIVE. I’VE MISSED IT
By TESSA CUNNINGHAM FOR THE DAILY MAIL
As she rushed to greet her mother, Alex Glennister found it hard to fight back the tears.
‘I was able to massage Mum’s beautiful hands,’ the 53-year-old says. ‘Until now visits have been behind a Perspex screen. I couldn’t touch Mum’s hand or kiss her.
‘You don’t realise how much you miss touch until you’ve lost it. It’s so instinctive to take a hand and warm it with your own.
‘Today I was able to massage Mum’s hands – she has always had the most beautiful soft skin. We’ve been waiting so long for this moment.’
For Jo Shepherd, 84, the reunion was almost too exquisite for words.
Burying her face in the bouquet of winter roses which her daughter had picked from her garden before making the long journey from Sevenoaks, in Kent, to the care home in Bampton, Devon, she was beaming.
‘I couldn’t properly talk to Alex or understand what was going on,’ says Mrs Shepherd, who has lived in the Castle Grove care home with 22 other residents for the last four years after suffering a series of falls. ‘I knew it had to be like that because no one wants to get ill. But what a lovely moment this was.’
‘The home has been magnificent, ensuring Mum’s safety while doing their best to make things as normal as possible,’ says Mrs Glennister, a mother-of-three. ‘They even let my sister and me see Mum for her birthday in July. But we had to sit six feet away and couldn’t touch her.
‘It was agony. Can you imagine celebrating your mum’s birthday form the other side of a room? We couldn’t kiss her or help her open her presents?’
Mrs Shepherd is used to change. She travelled the world with her husband, John, an agronomist, living for long periods in Brazil and Nigeria before retiring to Devon in their late 50s. Mrs Glennister adds: ‘She has been wonderfully stoic for the last months. Now she is just longing for the moment when she can see more of the family.
‘Sadly she says she has forgotten what her great-grandchildren look like because she hasn’t seen them for so long.’
Lucy Bull, 40, runs Castle Grove with her mother Isabelle Kenny. She couldn’t be more thrilled with how the visits – in a newly erected and heated summer house in the grounds – have gone.
‘This is a game-changer,’ she says. ‘Touch is such a very basic human emotion. We rely on it from the first moment we are born to our last breath.
‘We forget about it in our busy lives, but we need it most in our twilight years. To be denied that has been incredibly hard. Some of our residents are losing key senses – brains might forget things, eyesight or hearing going. To be able to hold a hand goes to the core of being human.’
Subject to approval by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), officials expect to be able to start rolling it out to care homes within a few days, and by Christmas at the latest.
The key problem hinges on the way the vaccine is supplied by Pfizer – in large freezer cases capable of storing up to 5,000 doses at the required temperature. Each container holds trays, roughly the size of a pizza box, containing 975 doses.
When on Wednesday the MHRA issued authorisation for the vaccine to be used, it stipulated that each box could be moved and opened only a limited number of times before the vaccines were used.
And it said that until a detailed distribution plan is drawn up, the trays should not be split before the vaccines were ready to be used, making transporting them to care homes all but impossible.
Professor Liam Smeeth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine – a non-executive director of the MHRA – said yesterday: ‘The logistics are going to have to be based around what we can achieve.’
Asked whether that meant care homes were unlikely to part of the first wave of the vaccine roll-out, he told Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Yes, I think you’re right.’
But Government sources said last night that the issue is set to be resolved.
They said the planning process for how the batches would be safely split had already been drawn up but could not be finalised until the vaccine actually began arriving last night.
It will involve splitting the trays and repackaging them into smaller parcels, which will then be transported in refrigerated bags supplied to each vaccination team.
Once out of the freezer containers, there will be a limit of about five days in which to use them.
While the plan is subject to approval by the MHRA, the process is expected to be completed in days.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said that although care home residents were at the top of the prioritisation list, the process was designed to be flexible.
He asked families to be patient – but said officials were working hard to resolve the issue.
‘We have got an exciting vaccine, we have got others that are in the pipeline and we fully expect the programme and our priority list to be rolled out in the very near future,’ he said.
‘The very short-term practical difficulties of getting this out from a storage point of view should not let us all lose sight of the fact that these care home residents and their staff are our utmost priority – and it may well be possible to get the care home staff to be immunised within a local hospital setting.’
The National Care Forum called for guarantees that, if challenges delivering the Pfizer jab are not overcome, the other vaccines near to approval will be able to be delivered on site into care homes.
‘The timescale for assurance of the alternative vaccines must be clearly laid out,’ a spokesman said.
‘It’s all very well to ask care homes to be patient but having outlined just how life changing this could be, the patience of residents, relatives and providers shouldn’t be expected to stretch too far.’
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, suggested that the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine – which does not require the same super-cold storage – may come to the rescue within days.
The MHRA is currently assessing the Oxford jab, with a decision expected next week.
Professor Van-Tam told BBC Breakfast that, if officials can, they ‘absolutely will’ get the Pfizer jab into care homes but the Oxford vaccine would be easier to deploy.
Asked whether it will be approved before Christmas, he said: ‘I’m hopeful that will happen, but it’s out of my hands. We go at the speed of the science.’
Christmas confusion over tests for care home visitors
By MARIO LEDWITH AND ELEANOR HAYWARD FOR THE DAILY MAIL
Care homes fear being sued for human rights breaches if they do not allow Christmas visits, amid widespread confusion over the Government’s new testing regime.
But experts also say providers could get into trouble if they let tested visitors in – and there is a subsequent Covid outbreak.
Industry bosses said that the nationwide roll-out of rapid tests has been mired in chaos, leaving families unsure about whether they will get to see loved ones.
Pictured: Rachel Byles is visiting her mother Cosette Wood at Castle Grove Care Home in Bampton, Tiverton
Since ministers gave the green light to hugs at Christmas earlier this week it has emerged that some homes will continue to ban visits, citing fears that they may not be covered by hiked insurance policies.
It came as relatives yesterday said they have been left devastated by a cruel postcode lottery that could prevent festive reunions from going ahead.
Despite Government advice that visits should proceed, some councils have suggested they will not support a testing regime.
Martin Green, of Care England, which represents providers, called for firmer guidance.
FIRST HUG WAS WONDERFUL
By TESSA CUNNINGHAM FOR THE DAILY MAIL
One of the hardest adjustments for Cosette Wood, 79, since suffering a stroke in July has been the deprivation of her daughter’s loving arms around her.
So the moment when Rachel Byles, 54, was able to reach out and embrace her yesterday was magical for both of them. ‘That first hug was simply wonderful,’ says Mrs Wood.
‘Mum has rallied magnificently but nevertheless she has seemed so frail after her stroke,’ says Mrs Byles, a retired businesswoman and mother-of-three from Somerset. ‘She was so independent but she is now in a wheelchair and has trouble talking. Not to be able to hug her has been tough. All I wanted was to hold her and comfort her.’
Mrs Wood, who lost her husband, a farmer, in 2014, suffered a severe stroke in the garden of her home near Tiverton, Devon. She spent nine weeks in hospital and coronavirus restrictions made it hard for Mrs Byles and her sister Belinda, 51, to spend time with her.
‘We were allowed into the ward but we couldn’t even hold Mum’s hand,’ says Mrs Byles. ‘We didn’t know what her future was.’
After moving into a respite home, Mrs Wood arrived at Castle Grove six weeks ago.
‘To finally put my arms around her after all we have been through is indescribable,’ says Mrs Byles. ‘Sadly I lost my husband Robert last year. Since his death I guess Mum and I have leant on each other. So not to be able to offer her the most basic human comfort has been particularly hard.’
He said homes fear they could face legal action if visits go ahead and there is a subsequent Covid outbreak, as well as if they block visits altogether.
He said: ‘If you take the Government’s advice then you might find yourself in hot water later because of that.
‘If you take the local authority’s advice and you can’t reinstate visiting then you might be in potential breach of the Human Rights Act.
‘In a way, you will be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.’
Guidelines published by the Department for Health this week after a Daily Mail campaign for Christmas visits to go ahead orders care homes to consider equalities and human rights legislation.
Nick Freeman, a criminal defence lawyer, said: ‘The Mail has highlighted the humanitarian aspect of why care home visits must go ahead, but there is also a strong legal argument.
‘Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights covers the right to a family life.’
Care bosses claim that they are terrified of the prospect of legal action linked to Covid, which has already seen insurance premiums rocket by up to 880 per cent.
In a letter to relatives of residents this week, a care home in County Durham said that it would not carry out tests to enable visits due to fears of legal action.
And Nicola Richards, director of Palms Row Health Care in Sheffield, said it would not offer visits due to concerns about the rapid tests.
Care Forum Wales, which represents nearly 500 providers, said that some homes may decide to stop visits or close altogether rather than risk paying out ‘ruinous damages’.
Manchester yesterday became the latest big city to signal that it will advise homes not to follow guidelines.
In a blow to thousands, Mayor Andy Burnham said there was ‘very considerable concern’ about the use of lateral flow tests, which give results in 30 minutes.
And Bolton Council yesterday said it was ‘seeking clarity from the Government’ over care home testing.
Liverpool Council became the first to disregard the advice earlier this week, launching a significantly more restrictive visiting regime.
Officials in Sheffield have also raised concerns about the tests’ effectiveness.
Rochdale Borough Council has advised homes against using lateral flow tests over ‘serious concerns’ about accuracy.
Critics point to research showing they have an overall sensitivity of just over 75 per cent.
But a Public Health England and University of Oxford review insisted they were ‘accurate and reliable’.
Diane Mayhew, of campaign group Rights for Residents, said: ‘Councils are wielding power over our loved ones and we feel like they’re holding them hostage.’