Adam Holloway is MP for Gravesham.
Some of the oldest and most medically vulnerable people in our country have yet to get the new coronavirus vaccine because others have jumped the queue – often with permission of their local employers.
At a time when vaccines are in limited supply, this is a national scandal that undermines the Government, and the NHS’s remarkable success in the vaccine roll-out far. It jeopardises the effort to get the country back to normal and, ultimately, is costing lives.
Near to where I sit writing this article in my Kent constituency, there are people in their 80s, shielded and unable to leave home, who as of this morning have not been vaccinated – while fit as a fiddle police officers in their 20s were given the vaccine many weeks ago.
Since December, a vaccination programme has been carefully rolled out which is supposed to prioritise those most at risk: the elderly, and people with underlying medical conditions.
The Government has been determined to move it all along in extraordinarily well worked out need-based groups. But tens of thousands of healthy young people have been vaccinated because of what we might call “institutional queue jumping”. How has this happened?
The reply from up and down the country is that vaccinations are being given to fit young people because – to quote one Police and Crime Commissioner – the alternative is to “throw vaccine away at the end of sessions”. So frequently does this seem to happen that at least one police force has its own list of officers which they themselves deem to be “clinically vulnerable” – though this list has no relationship to the one maintained by the NHS. These officers are put on notice to go to vaccination centres.
Of course, there may indeed be doses left over at the end of the day, but significant amounts are a sign of bad management. A centre should open the right number of vials for the patients who have actually shown, up especially if they are using the Oxford Astrazeneca vaccine.
Where there are no shows, better-run centres have reserve lists of people in the categories most at risk who can be called at short notice. In too many places, this is not happening. GPs often do vaccinations, in addition to their usual surgeries. For some of these, is it surely easier for them to have a large number of willing instantly mobile young arms to inject than to expend additional time and resources to find those for whom the vaccine is intended.
I have nothing but praise for police officers who are spat on and threatened by people claiming to have Covid. Similarly, many thousands of other workers have shown enormous bravery over the last year going into work day after day: teachers, carers, supermarket workers, cleaners. I think of one local teacher, with serious underlying health conditions, whose behaviour can only be described as heroic.
It’s also true that many police officers here in Kent have been off ill with the virus, and of course a number in the nearby Met have died. But frontline police officers are predominantly fit and in good health. If they had underlying conditions, they would already be on the NHS’s priority list. They are in exactly the groups least likely to suffer badly from the illness. They should not pushed to the front of the vaccine queue, however much we respect and admire them.
It’s not just the police. Over-70s at a vaccination centre at a Kent national league football club were dumbfounded to see the team queuing up with them in their tracksuits. The fittest possible young men in their 20s were getting a vaccine that should have been destined for the old and vulnerable.
NHS England puts social workers in the priority two group for vaccinations – but “social workers” include people working in finance, HR, marketing and other administrative roles. A recent study of 15 local authorities found that 80 per cent of social workers were working from home following outbreak of the pandemic – a figure that surely includes managers who don’t have direct contact with clients.
Are there scores of social workers in administrative roles, having zero interaction with their clients, getting lifesaving vaccinations over those that truly need them? A Welsh health board has admitted giving Pfizer vaccines to staff that have zero patient interaction: how many NHS or local authority staff who do not come into contact with patients have been vaccinated? Yesterday I asked an NHS administrator this question: she smiled and rolled her eyes.
These are not the worst abuses. Academics at a college in London took advantage of their university’s designation as a vaccination site to flash their ID cards for a ‘spare’ vaccine. A member of staff spoke of “a semi-formal system operating…where young and healthy members of staff can jump the queue”. There is also the case of young and healthy members of staff at the Care Quality Commission in Yorkshire who travelled 40 miles to get their shots ahead of the sick and elderly.
And there was the utterly ludicrous decision taken by some GP surgeries to vaccinate 320 recently arrived asylum seekers staying in a hotel near Heathrow Airport. Only 25 per cent of the asylum seekers were over 70 or had underlying health conditions. Many of them were healthy and in their 20s.
The main criterion for vaccination should be simple: clinical need. The Government’s carefully worked-out groups are designed to most quickly reduce the number of hospitalisations and deaths. Each and every dose of vaccine represents a possible life saved. We cannot afford to waste even one precious vial on an individual who is statistically unlikely to be at risk from this wretched disease.
The data is clear: according to Imperial College in London, if you are under-40 and contract Covid-19, your chances of dying are 0.1 per cent; if you are over 80, then this figure rises to over five per cent. Your chances of dying from Covid-19 approximately double for every eight years of ageing. While the oldest and most vulnerable are still be vaccinated, there should be no such thing as a ‘spare vaccine’.
I was startled to be offered a vaccination, which I declined, after doing a single shift in the outdoors directing traffic at a vaccination centre. I am 55, fat, and drink too much -but I am very unlikely to die if I eventually get the disease. Fundamentally, it is about fairness.
The vaccine programme – with its priority groups – is designed to save the most lives and to ease the strain on the NHS. It should not be open to tweaking by people who think that they or others have been wrongly left off the early groups. Implementing the programme is the only way of finding our way out of the economically ruinous lockdown and saving the lives of people like my most at risk constituents.
Anyone who disagrees must answer the question: which clinically vulnerable person should not receive an injection today so it can go to the next young, healthy police officer, teacher, academic, social worker, some-time carpark attendant, or NHS administrator?