PM distances himself from Hewitt over shortage of flu vaccinations

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A furious Tony Blair was forced on the defensive over the flu vaccination crisis amid continuing anger over the Department of Health's handling of the affair.

Mr Blair distanced himself from the insistence by the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, that doctors were responsible for ordering the vaccine.

He declined to blame doctors for over-prescribing winter flu jabs as he faced repeated claims that the Government was guilty of "inefficiency and incompetence" for allowing vaccine supplies to dry up.

Ms Hewitt sparked irritation from GPs on Tuesday when she blamed doctors for failing to give priority to people who were at most risk of catching flu - mainly the over-65s.

The Health Secretary apologised yesterday to patients who were unable to get their injections, but she said that she hoped all people at risk would get a vaccination before the end of the winter.

She told the BBC: "I'm just sorry that some people who are in the priority category and want a vaccination are being put through this anxiety because their particular GP does not have the stocks."

A row erupted on Tuesday as it emerged that some government departments were offering private flu jabs to staff.

But the Prime Minister's official spokesman insisted that "there is no point in getting into the blame game" over the affair.

However, Ms Hewitt's handling of the issue has angered Mr Blair, who took a pounding at Prime Minister's Questions from Michael Howard, the Conservative leader.

Mr Howard claimed that the Department of Health had "bungled" the supply of seasonal flu vaccinations, claiming that the Government was "on the skids".

He said: "If the department can so comprehensively bungle the routine administration of the seasonal flu vaccine, what confidence can we have in their ability to cope with a pandemic of bird flu?"

Mr Blair said: "What has happened is that an assessment was made as to the number of vaccines that would be necessary - and remember we've ensured with the manufacturers this year that more than 14 million were going to be available.

"But as a result of more people demanding the vaccine, it appeared at the end of October that there was going to be a shortfall. The department then ordered a further 200,000 of the jabs. I would point out that, to be fair to the department and others who were planning this, that if it had gone to plan there would probably have been in the region of two million doses that weren't necessary.

Mr Blair also faced questions over his claim that the Government had built up a "very large contingency" supply of vaccine.

He said: "It's correct that as a result of the concern there has been, the demand for the doses has risen considerably. But, as I say, they had built in a very large contingency. It appeared at the end of October that contingency was not enough and that's the reason they asked for more."

Figures from the Department of Health showed that 14 million doses of vaccine were originally ordered from suppliers to cater for 13.2 million people across Britain deemed at risk of flu and eligible for vaccination by the NHS.

One Whitehall official said: "It was disastrous. We really failed to get our act together. We need to respond more quickly when events like this happen."`

The Liberal Democrats said that at least 437,000 full-time carers were likely to be eligible for the jab, leaving a contingency of about 400,000 doses.

Steve Webb, the party's health spokesman, said: "The reality is that they have under-provided for flu vaccine. They need to take responsibility instead of casting around for someone to blame."

Department of Health officials indicated yesterday that they had secured an extra 400,000 doses of vaccine, on top of an emergency order for 200,000 doses revealed on Tuesday.