Vaughan Gething MS, Minister for Health and Social Services
Today marks a key milestone in our fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. The roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which begins in Wales today, has been called a “game changer” by many commentators.
It was less than a month ago that NHS Wales mobilised the largest vaccination programme our country has ever seen. As of last Sunday more than 35,000 people have received their first dose. That number will increase exponentially over coming weeks. Today, only 5 days since regulatory approval of the new vaccine for use in the UK, NHS Wales will begin deploying it.
Members will be aware of the widely reported benefits of this latest vaccine – it is cheaper and supply will be more plentiful. However, crucially, it presents significantly fewer logistical challenges than the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, with storage at normal fridge temperatures. As NHS capacity continues to build over the coming weeks, we will be able to get the vaccine to where it is needed in every part of Wales. Much more flexible and mobile deployment models will be activated. Every care home will be within reach and this priority group will be a key focus for the NHS over the coming weeks, together with those aged over 80. The new vaccine will also enable home visits for our bed bound, elderly and vulnerable, facilitating the targeting of other priority groups that have been difficult to reach over the past month.
Another critical factor which starts to form part of our deployment plan from today is the coming on-stream of the primary care sector in Wales. A service specification is in place involving all four primary care providers. The specification gives health boards the flexibility to make decisions on increasing use of the primary care sector. Primary care providers have the infrastructure and expertise to run large scale vaccination programmes, as we have seen this year with the expanded flu immunisation programme. This represents a significant milestone in our programme here in Wales. The fact that, going forward, many individuals will be able to receive their vaccination from a local GP practice or pharmacy substantially increases our ability to reach those priority groups.
A further development is the latest advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) about the dose interval of the two approved vaccines. I updated Members on this issue in my statement on 31 December. The JCVI advice has been endorsed by all 4 Chief Medical officers across the UK. With the assurance of short term protection from the first dose I have approved an up to 12 week interval between first and second doses of both available vaccines. This provides an opportunity to protect the greatest number of vulnerable people in the shortest period of time. NHS Wales has received an instruction to this effect.
This change in scientific evidence and medical advice has resulted in a change of approach across the UK. We have moved quickly to respond to the science.
In practice, it means that most second dose appointments will not take place in Wales this week. The many thousands of people that have received their first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Wales will still receive their second dose, but they will not receive it as quickly as originally expected. I appreciate this may cause anxiety for some, but I want to reassure people that they will receive their full course of the vaccine and will be protected by the first dose in the meantime. Also, crucially, I hope people take comfort from knowing their originally scheduled second dose is instead going to protect another person who is at risk of contracting and becoming seriously ill from the disease. This is a decision that has been taken in order to save more lives and protect our NHS.
I have given several updates over the last month on NHS Wales preparations for vaccine deployment. Plans for the roll-out of the AstraZeneca vaccine have been made and are now being activated. These plans will run alongside the existing arrangements for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which we continue to receive supplies for.
It is inevitable, however, that time is needed to build capacity. As I said in my statement on 31 December, we have been building an infrastructure from the ground up. That job is ongoing, especially with the introduction of a role for primary care, but the pace will accelerate. Over the next couple of weeks we will see our vaccination centres grow to 22, more than 60 GP surgeries come on-board and mobile units established in most areas of Wales. We also expect to see the number of vaccine doses delivered to health boards grow week on week. The consequence of this upscaling is a marked stepping-up of pace and, crucially, greater numbers of our most vulnerable people protected from this awful disease.
The JCVI’s priority categories have not changed with the introduction of the AstraZeneca vaccine. The most vulnerable will continue to be prioritised, with a maintained focus on preventing deaths and protecting our NHS to enable it to continue to deliver the essential service it provides.
I am aware of particular interest in the prioritisation of key workers beyond health and social care professionals. The position on key workers is unchanged. Those over 50 or with particular health conditions will be captured within this first phase of vaccination, when it is their turn according to the JCVI prioritisation. If large groups of workers were prioritised at an earlier point it would deprioritise other groups of people who are more vulnerable to harm. Those under 50 will receive their vaccination as part of the second phase of deployment in due course. The contribution of key workers during the course of the pandemic has been incredible. I am glad that vaccine prioritisation is kept under constant review by JCVI, especially in planning the next phase of cohorts.
It remains the case that people will be sent appointments with details of the location where they will receive the vaccination, dependent on where they are on the JCVI list. Invitations will be generated automatically and sent when individuals are due their vaccination. There is no need for people to apply for an appointment and we are asking people to avoid contacting GPs, health boards and hospitals in the meantime.
I said at the outset of the deployment programme on 8 December that we could start to be optimistic, but that we still had a long and difficult journey ahead. The situation with hospital admissions has worsened since then. Early reductions in community transmission in parts of Wales are encouraging news but admissions may continue to increase before improving. Members will be familiar with the fact that there is a lag between infection and hospitalisation. Today does, however, represent a positive step forward in our national fight-back against the disease. Our NHS will play its part and we must all play ours to keep each other safe and to keep Wales safe.
This statement is being issued during recess in order to keep members informed. Should members wish me to make a further statement or to answer questions on this when the Senedd returns I would be happy to do so.