Government remains confident in UK vaccine supply, minister says
By Jane Kirby and Emma Bowden, PA
The Government has absolute confidence in UK vaccine supplies, with all adults on track to receive a first dose by the end of July, a Government minister has said.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the UK’s vaccine programme will continue to be “world-leading”, despite a row with Europe over vaccine exports.
It comes as new figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest around one in 340 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to March 20 – unchanged on the previous week.
The picture remains broadly similar in Wales and Northern Ireland, with a slight rise in cases in Scotland.
European Union leaders stopped short on Thursday evening during a European Council meeting of banning exports of vaccines, as a disagreement with the Anglo-Swedish pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca continues.
While giving a backing in principle for toughened export controls, a statement following the summit stressed the importance of global supply chains in producing jabs.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said AstraZeneca must “catch up” on deliveries to the EU before exporting doses elsewhere, with her views receiving support from Italy, Spain and France.
Addressing a Brussels press conference following the meeting, Ms von der Leyen said she had “no knowledge” of the UK exporting jabs, while 77 million doses had been exported to 33 countries by the EU so far.
Any ban by the EU could also affect vaccines produced for BioNTech/Pfizer at a plant in Belgium.
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte told reporters that while his fellow leaders had found the Commission’s export controls “acceptable”, he hoped they would never be used.
Belgian prime minister Alexander de Croo also said he believed the EU’s dispute with the UK over vaccine supplies “can be resolved” as he referred to a phone call with Boris Johnson last week.
Speaking to Good Morning Britain on Friday, Mr Jenrick said the UK’s plans were still on track, adding: “We are confident we have got the supplies that we need both to meet our mid-April target of vaccinating all the over-50s and those people with clinical vulnerabilities, and the bigger target, which is that every adult at least has had their first jab by the end of July.
“Of course, anyone who has an appointment for a jab, either their first one or second one, there is no need to worry – those appointments will be honoured.”
Pressed on where UK vaccine doses would come from if Brussels did apply an export ban, he added: “We’ve chosen since the start not to discuss our supply chains. We think that’s the right decision.
“We’re getting our vaccines from multiple manufacturers, from all over the world with complex international supply chains – none of them are reliant on any one factory or any one country.
“What I can assure your viewers of is our absolute commitment and confidence that we will be able to deliver on the targets that the Prime Minister has set out, so there is no reason to worry – the vaccine programme will continue and it is going to continue to be a world-leading one.”
Asked whether the UK had exported any vaccines to the EU, Mr Jenrick told Sky News: “Vaccines are based on complex international supply chains.
“There are elements of the vaccines being produced in the UK, there are elements being produced in parts of the European Union and indeed all over the world – we are working with the Serum Institute, for example, in India.
“So it is critical for all countries that there is the free flow of medical products, including vaccines, across international borders, and it would be very damaging if countries started to pull up drawbridges and prevent vaccines, medicines or elements of them from crossing international borders, and the UK strongly opposes that.”
Later, Mr Jenrick told Times Radio that the issue of vaccine passports for international travel may be down to individual countries.
He said: “Of course on the international stage, vaccine certification is not entirely within our control and if our citizens want to travel abroad, we’ll need to ensure that they are able to do so.
“Domestically, there are a range of issues we need to work through, that work is now happening and it will be reporting back later. But if we do go down that route, we don’t anticipate it being in the near term.”
Asked about Tory objections to the possible scheme, he said: “I completely understand the reservations that many people have in Parliament and across the country.
“We’re looking into the practical issues, the ethical concerns and we’re being guided by the best medical and scientific opinion and we will be bringing forward the outcome of that work in the coming weeks.
“We don’t have an immediate plan to take action. Our focus at the moment is the vaccine rollout – that has to be our priority.”
Mr Jenrick told LBC radio vaccine passports were part of a “wide range of options” which were being considered “in the longer-term, once the whole country has been vaccinated”.
Elsewhere, Professor Adam Finn, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the upcoming “slight slowdown” in the vaccine rollout is due to increased demand worldwide.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, he said: “The demand for vaccine is racking up massively faster, so all the different programmes in different countries are really getting going, and so we’re moving into a phase where the rate-limiting step is vaccine supply.
“The other part of it is that the process of making vaccines is enormously complicated, it involves literally dozens if not hundreds of steps, and so getting those supplies going and making sure that all of the vaccine is in good quality, good shape, and good purity if you like, is always going to lead to some delays along the way.
“But this is not a complete standstill, it’s just a slight slowdown, and things are still moving forward really fast.”
Meanwhile, Sarah Schiffling, senior lecturer in supply chain management at Liverpool John Moores University, said the UK was “not that dependant on the EU” and there was a lot of supply of AstraZeneca within the country.