New vaccines for Covid-19 will not provide a “short cut” to take the UK out of the lockdown restrictions needed to deal with the second wave of the disease, England’s deputy chief medical officer has warned.
Jonathan Van-Tam said he was “very hopeful” that over time vaccines - such as the Pfizer/BioNTech breakthrough announced on Monday - will play an important role in helping the world live with Covid, but refused to put a timeframe on a return to normal life.
As the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation confirmed it is currently recommending jabs should be offered first to those living or working in care homes, followed by the elderly, Prof Van-Tam said he would personally be confident to be given the vaccine - though he did not believe he would or should be on the priority list.
Declaring that he “absolutely trusts” the UK’s MHRA medicines regulator to judge whether a vaccine is safe and effective, he said that he applied a “Mum test” to determine whether he was confident about the jab.
“I think the Mum test is very important here,” Prof Van-Tam told a press conference at 10 Downing Street.
“My Mum is 78, she'll be 79 shortly. And I've already said to her ‘Mum, make sure when you're called you're ready. Be ready to take this up’.“
Prof Van-Tam said he had heard “no inkling” of a suggestion from government or industry that people in the UK would be able to jump the queue to get the vaccine by going private.
While he acknowledged that this was a decision for politicians, he said: “I think these vaccines need to be prioritised to those who need them, not those who can afford to pay for them privately.”
Prof Van-Tam confirmed that the UK has the option to order up to 40 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine, but said they would not be bought until the MHRA (Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) has cleared the jab as safe and effective.
And MHRA chief executive June Raine said there was “absolutely no chance that we will compromise on standards of safety or effectiveness” even in a situation of global public health emergency.
Prof Van-Tam said he was confident that, once the inoculation becomes available for use, the NHS has the capacity to get it to patients as quickly as it can be produced.
“Do I think we will move at pace to keep up with the volumes that are supplied to us? Yes, I absolutely do,” he said.
Health secretary Matt Hancock had told the NHS that the only factor slowing down the administration of jabs should be “the rate at which the vaccine can be produced and delivered to us, not the speed at which the NHS can deliver”, said Prof Van-Tam.
The NHS does an “astonishing job” every year inoculating similar groups against flu, he said, adding: “From that perspective, I think there's confidence that this system knows how important vaccinations are, knows how important Covid-19 vaccines are, and will move at the required speed.”
But he warned that the emergence of vaccines did not mean the public could relax on social distancing and lockdown restrictions.
He refused to estimate how soon a successful vaccine could result in a return to normal life, saying: “I’m very hopeful that over time, vaccines will make a very important difference to how we have to live with Covid-19 in the long run.
“Will these vaccines be a ‘get-out clause’ for the current second wave that we are in? Absolutely not.
“We're going to have to push the second wave down by the non-pharmaceutical interventions, the social distancing, the stay-at-home, all the things that we're doing right now. There's no short cut to the future that you and I both aspire to.”
JCVI chair Prof Wei Shen Lim said that the committee’s interim recommendation was that any vaccine should be given first to care home residents and workers, then by age group, starting with the over-80s and going down to the over-65s before including younger adults with underlying health conditions which make them vulnerable to Covid.
Phase one of the vaccination programme would cover everyone over 50, and should by then have protected 99 per cent of those at risk of dying from the virus, he said.
Prof Van-Tam made a strongly personal case against allowing people to jump the queue to get a vaccine shot by paying to go private.
“I’m a doctor,” he said. “I’ve worked for or around the NHS for most of my career.
“One of the things I like about the NHS is that it's there for everybody, irrespective of their level of wealth or who they are in society. That is a really, really important principle to me personally.
“I think everyone understands that these are commodities that are going to be needed to be used for public health purposes in the first instance.”
On the question of whether private patients could get priority, he said: “I don't know of any plans from any manufacturers, and certainly don't have any inkling that we would contemplate that kind of arrangement for the UK.
“But of course that is a ministerial decision. It is not a clinician’s decision. I'm giving you my views as a clinician, that I think these vaccines need to be prioritised to those who need them, not those who can afford to pay for them privately.”
Prof Van-Tam’s comments came after a poll in the Daily Mail suggested that only 74 per cent of Britons would definitely take a Covid vaccine, compared with 11 per cent saying they probably would not and 7 per cent saying certainly not. Four in ten said the prime minister and fellow politicians should take the vaccination first to show it was safe.
Asked if he was ready to take the jab first to prove it was safe, the deputy chief medical officer said: “If I could, rightly and morally, be at the very front of the queue, then I would do so, because I absolutely trust the judgment of the MHRA on safety and efficacy.
“But that clearly isn’t right, we have to target the most highest risk individuals in society and that is how it should be in terms of our system.
“If I could be at the front of the queue, then I would be."
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