More details have emerged about who will be first to get the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine when the UK rollout begins next week, with the first doses having now arrived from Belgium.
The highly anticipated jab reached Britain on Thursday after being brought through the Eurotunnel on lorries.
It is now being delivered to each of the devolved nations and will be distributed to 50 hospital hubs in the coming days – with care home residents and staff, as well as the over-80s, set to be among the first to be vaccinated.
With the vaccine approved by the UK’s independent health regulator MHRA, which has defended the speed of its decision following questions from America’s top infectious diseases expert, the NHS has begun recruiting staff who either have experience of delivering a vaccine or are willing to be trained.
An advert for one London healthcare trust says: “We are expecting to receive the COVID-19 vaccine very soon.
“Vaccinating as many Londoners as quickly as possible will require your help.
“We are looking for healthcare professionals from across the capital. You may already have experience of delivering a vaccine to people, or you may be willing to be trained.”
The government has ordered 40 million doses of the jab, which is enough to vaccinate 20 million people, with 800,000 doses set to arrive by next week.
Studies have shown it is 95% effective in preventing COVID-19 and works in all age groups.
Secondly, hospitals over the next few days will identify as many patients over 80 as possible that they can vaccinate against the coronavirus.
Obvious candidates would be those attending outpatient appointments and those receiving inpatient treatment.
There had been concerns that the vaccine’s storage needs would make it difficult to deliver to care homes, but – while the task remains challenging – those fears have somewhat subsided.
The MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) has said vaccine boxes containing 975 doses can be split into smaller numbers of doses, making it easier for vaccine to be sent to care home residents.
Given that the vaccine needs to be initially stored at -70C (-94F), Mr Hopson admitted “this won’t be easy”.
The jab can be sent to care homes as long as it travels for no more than six hours after it leaves cold storage – and is then put in a normal fridge at 2C to 8C.
If there are early vaccine doses left over after these priority groups are given the jab, hospitals will then vaccinate staff based on risk factors.
Hospitals will be asked to ensure anyone who gets a first dose will be available for a second dose three weeks later, which is required for the vaccine to be effective.
Mr Hopson warned the rollout would be a “large, complex, important logistical challenge”, but he added: “This is what NHS is good at – and why we benefit hugely from having a National Health Service, as the creation of 33,000 beds for coronavirus patients in first phase showed.
“Trusts will deliver this vital task.”
The UK is the first country to approve the jab for use, and the first vaccinations are expected on Tuesday.
As more doses become available, possibly in the new year, the vaccination will be administered to other risk groups, with the bulk of vaccinations expected to take place between January and April.
There are over 170 coronavirus vaccines in development across the globe, but there are a handful of frontrunners which are in the last stages of checks and could soon become available like the Pfizer jab.
A much cheaper and more easily stored option from Oxford University and AstraZeneca, albeit one with a lower efficacy rating, has been submitted for approval in the UK.
Meanwhile, scientists from American company Moderna are seeking approval from US and EU regulators to allow emergency use of their jab, which the UK government has ordered seven million doses of.
On Wednesday, Russia announced it will begin large-scale vaccinations using its jab called Sputnik V next week, and the Chinese military has approved another one made by CanSino Biologics.