Hospitals in UK have been told to prepare for the rollout of a coronavirus vaccine in as little as 10 days' time, with NHS workers expected to be at the frontline of the vaccine receivers.
NHS authority said hospitals in England could expect to receive their first deliveries of a vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech as soon as Monday 7 December, with regulatory approval anticipated within days, said an exclusive report published by the Guardian.
According to sources at several hospitals across the country, NHS England said they should expect to get stocks of vaccine on 7, 8 or 9 December.
Initially only NHS staff are set to be given the jab, with care home residents and the over-80s having to wait. This is despite those two groups being classed by the government as top priorities for Covid immunisation, as they have the greatest risk of death from the disease. Care sector chiefs reacted angrily, warning that the move would be seen as a "betrayal".
Guidance issued in September by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), the government advisers who decide which groups get priority, said older people in care homes and their staff should be top of the list. Anyone over 80 and all those working in health and social care were the second priority, it said. Public Health England reiterated the priority list in guidance for the NHS on Friday.
But the nature of the Pfizer vaccine appears to have forced a rethink of who gets it first. Its composition means it should be moved only a limited number of times, experts believe, and as such it cannot easily be transported by healthcare staff such as GPs to care homes and older people's private residences.
NHS officials believe that if it is moved more than four times it risks becoming unstable and ineffective. By the time it reaches UK hospitals, it will have been moved twice, from the Pfizer production plant in Belgium to storage hubs in Britain, and from those hubs to hospitals where it can be administered.
One senior hospital executive told the Guardian, "We've been told to expect the vaccine on 7 December and plan to start vaccinating our staff all that week.
However, it's the Pfizer vaccine we're getting, so it can't be moved again once it gets to us and we then have to use it within five days, as that's its shelf life.
"The original plan was to do care homes first. But once the vaccine gets to us it can't be used in the community, so only NHS staff will be able to have it, at least initially."
NHS England's expectation that the first supplies of Pfizer's product will reach hospitals on and after 7 December depends on the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) having approved it in time.
The regulator has been assessing the vaccine for more than a week, since a formal request from the health secretary, Matt Hancock. However, there is a strong belief at the top of the NHS that it will get the green light next week.