The UK coronavirus vaccine rollout is constrained by limited supply of the vaccines, but the government is on track to vaccinate the top four priority group by 15 February, Matt Hancock has said.
The health secretary’s comments came amid reports of GP surgeries in some areas having to pause inoculations because supplies were being diverted to areas that still have higher risk groups.
“Supply of the vaccine is the rate-limiting factor and we have to make sure that the vaccine is distributed to everybody, in the first instance over the age of 80 and then over the age of 70, by February 15, so we’re on track,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Asked whether the problem was that there was not the vaccine to give to those GPs, he replied: “Correct. As I’ve said all the way along in this vaccine programme, the rate-limiting step on the rollout is the supply of the vaccine itself. We are now managing to get that supply more than we have done before, and it will increase over the next few weeks.
“We have the capacity to get that vaccine out. The challenge is we need to get the supply in. And what I know is that the supply will increase over the next couple of weeks, and that means the very rapid rate that we’re going at at the moment will continue to accelerate over the next couple of weeks. And that is why I’m confident we’re on track to hit the target.
“We have enough in the supply chain coming through to be able to deliver against that target.”
Asked whether there was a problem with supply, he replied: “I haven’t said that at all. I’ve said the rate-limiting step is supply.”
He agreed the UK did not have as much supply as the government would like. “But we’ve got as much as we were expecting.” The supply and the system would become “increasingly smooth” over time, he added, reassuring those in the top four priority groups they would get their jabs by the middle of February.
Around 2.3 million people had already received the vaccine, he said. But he gave no indications about when current lockdown restrictions might end. It was “impossible to know” and they would last as “long as they are necessary”, he told Sky News.
“We will keep the restrictions in place not a moment longer than they are necessary, but we will keep them in place as long as they are necessary,” he said.
He applauded the decision by the department store John Lewis to stop click and collect deliveries, and also praised supermarkets for tightening their protocols.
Confirming the Guardian report that the NHS is considering plans to move some patients into hotels to ease pressure on hospitals, he told Sky News: “There are huge pressures on the NHS and we are looking to all different ways that we can relieve those pressures.
“We would only ever do that if it was clinically the right thing for somebody. In some cases, people need sit-down care, they don’t actually need to be in hospital beds.
“It isn’t a concrete proposal by any means but it is something that we look at as we look at all contingencies.”
He also said he hoped that the UK had hit the peak of this wave, but it was not certain. “Well, I want it to be,” he told BBC Breakfast. “But again, that comes down to the behaviour of everyone. Together we can make this the peak if enough people follow the rules, which are incredibly clear.”
Pressed again on whether this was the peak, Hancock said: “Well we don’t know, we published the data every day. I hope that it is.”