One week after the publication of Wales’ Covid-19 vaccination strategy the health minister is adamant we are seeing “good progress”.
Yet even while Wales continues to accelerate the rate of vaccination rollout there have been some “bewildering” remarks by the First Minister suggesting that the vaccine is being “held back”.
And it cannot be ignored that Wales continues to lag behind the rest of the UK and the gap in the population vaccinated is widening rather than narrowing.
As of Monday, January 18, Northern Ireland, which has consistently outperformed the other home nations, had managed to give the first vaccine doses to 7% of the population compared to 5.1% in Wales. England had given 6.55% at least one dose of the vaccine. The other nations have all also given significantly more second doses.
In other words, if Wales had vaccinated at the same rate as England, it would have given 206,000 first doses of the vaccine by now and not just 162,517. That’s an extra 45,000 people who would have been protected, equivalent to town the size of Cwmbran. At the rate Northern Ireland is vaccinating, Wales would have given the jab to 221,000 people – or and extra 59,000 people.
Wales has fallen short ever since the first week of rollout and while it has now closed the gap with Scotland, it is hardly something to boast about as Scotland reported it suffered delays in its own supply.
On Tuesday politicians challenged health minister Vaughan Gething and First Minister Mark Drakeford to provide more data to show how Wales was doing compared to the other home nations and demanded to know why Mr Drakeford had indicated he was “rationing out” the vaccine.
What is happening with Wales’ vaccine rollout?
By Monday, January 18, some 161,932 people in Wales had received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine since the rollout began in early December.
Armed with two vaccines, the Oxford-AstraZeneca and the Pfizer-BioNtech jabs, healthcare workers have been administering them to the most vulnerable people.
Welsh Government have repeatedly said they are working through the priority list set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisations (JCVI) on who should receive vaccines first. This is so protection from the virus is initially given to those who are most susceptible to it.
The Welsh Government aim to vaccinate the top four priority groups by mid-February and all over-50s by the spring. If it is to achieve this target it must administer roughly 20,000 jabs every day.
On Sunday, January 10, Mr Drakeford said Wales had received in excess of 250,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and 22,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab for the first week of the Oxford rollout, which began on January 4. Last week Wales received a second delivery of 25,000 doses of the Oxford vaccine.
It means that by Friday last week, Wales had delivered 151,000 jabs which is equivalent to around half of the 297,000 coronavirus vaccine doses it had received by the end of last week.
A further 100,000 doses were expected to arrive in Wales this week although the part of the planned supply of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab in Wales, some 26,000 jabs, has been delayed.
Data about vaccine supply and wastage won’t be published publicly until Tuesday, January 26.
During Tuesday’s Plenary session (January 19) Mr Gething insisted there was an “increasing urgency” and an “increasing pace of delivery” of vaccinations in the country thanks to a number of developments to help roll out the vaccine quicker, including:
- another four mass vaccination centres coming on stream, bringing the current total to 28, with a further 17 planned;
- the number if GP practices offering the vaccine increasing to more than 100 with the expectation now that the government will exceed the 250 practices committed to in its strategy by the end of January;
- doses of vaccine delivered to health boards doubling, increasing from around 50,000 last week to over 100,000 this week, and;
- the introduction of a community pharmacy pilot with a pharmacy in north Wales becoming the first to begin immunising on-site.
Community vaccination centres (CVCs) are also set to open which will see a range of primary care practitioners, including dentists and optometrists, offering vaccines within local communities.
Why are we behind England?
At the start of this week Wales had the lowest vaccination rate out of all four home nations having vaccinated 5.1% of the population.
While the figures back up Mr Gething’s assertion that the rollout in Wales is gathering pace it’s a long way from catching up with either Northern Ireland or England.
The leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price MS, has demanded a “coherent, clear answer” to the question of why Wales is lagging behind.
During First Minister’s Questions on Tuesday Mr Price asked whether the issue is that Wales has a higher proportion of people in the higher priority groups and called on the First Minister to clarify whether Wales should be getting a higher share of vaccine based on need rather than population.
Mr Price said: “My question is not unreasonable – I simply want to know why Wales is slower in vaccinating its population than the UK as a whole.
“We’ve been told that supply is consistent across all four nations but we’re yet to receive a coherent, clear answer as to what explains the gap. It’s a reasonable question and, if there is a problem, we can solve it.
“Once again we return to the question of whether we should be getting a higher share of vaccine based on need. We know that Wales has a larger proportion of people in the higher priority groups and so an initial delivery based on population rather than need may go some way to explaining why [some] people are yet to receive a call.”
Mr Drakeford said actions were being taken to make sure Wales’ age structure was being taken onto account in the supplies of the vaccine.
Conservative MS Andrew RT Davies told Plenary that by population share Wales is 40,000 people behind where England is – the equivalent of “a town the size of Caerphilly”.
“These numbers are getting bigger as the days and weeks go by because two weeks ago that gap was 15,000 citizens,” he added.
On Monday Mr Drakeford said Wales being slower than England on the coronavirus vaccination rollout “wasn’t the most important issue” and said there were only “very marginal differences”.
At the end of last week Mr Gething acknowledged that Wales was lagging “slightly” behind but said “we are making real progress” and “the differences are relatively small”.
Mr Gething said the reason Wales was behind was “because of the troubles we had deploying enough of the Pfizer vaccine”, which needs to be stored at very low temperatures making it harder to distribute to settings like care homes. He added: “I think those logistical challenges are largely behind us.
“I do think with the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine you will see a really rapid increase and the numbers we’re talking about in the first four weeks of the programme are going to be dwarfed by what we’re going to do week-on-week moving forward.”
Although Wales is currently only reaching around half the number of jabs that it needs to meet its mid-February target the increase in pace day-on-day does show that the daily number of doses is likely to continue to rise.
In Tuesday’s Plenary session Mr Gething said he fully expected seven in 10 care home residents and staff and seven in 10 over-80s in Wales would be protected with their first shot by the end of this week.
Are tens of thousands of vaccines really being held back?
On Monday Mr Drakeford defended holding back thousands of doses of Pfizer coronavirus vaccine as he said it had to last until the beginning of February.
The First Minister said Wales was using all the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which is made in the UK and can be kept in a fridge, as they get it. But he defended keeping back tens of thousands of doses of the Pfizer vaccine that had been given to Wales.
“We won’t get another delivery of that until the end of January, probably the beginning of February,” he said. “We have to use that over that six-week stretch. It would be logistically very damaging to try and use all of that in the first week and then to have all our vaccinators standing around with nothing to do for another month.”
Mr Gething has since claimed that the Welsh Government’s strategy is not the same as holding back vaccines and on Tuesday he reiterated: “As long as the supply comes in we’ll deliver those vaccines.”
Responding to calls from MSs including Plaid Cymru’s Rhun ap Iorwerth and Andrew RT Davies to provide further information on exactly how many doses of each vaccine Wales had received he said: “That level of detail may not be possible to give.”
There is commercially sensitive information contained within the strategy and he has to be “careful about providing as much information as we can,” he added.
Mr Gething said: “The First Minister has clarified his remarks and every vaccine is being used and no vaccines are being held back – I don’t think we can be any clearer.
“Pfizer stocks are being held, stored, and then released for use in every UK country. Every one of the four UK nations had a Pfizer delivery at the end of December and those are the stocks we’re working through as fast as our system can deliver them.
“We’ve built up our infrastructure to deliver a great many more Pfizer vaccines – that’s why over 60,000 jabs have been released into NHS Wales this week.”
On Tuesday Mr Gething also promised that by the middle of February Wales “should be in same place as other UK nations”. He clarified that the challenge was “having enough infrastructure to deliver the Pfizer jab without wasting it”.
“Less than 1% of that vaccine is not being delivered – that’s a very, very high level of efficiency,” Mr Gething said.
On Tuesday Mr Gething also announced that Public Health Wales will start publishing data on the numbers vaccinated in greater detail.
From Thursday PHW will publish a breakdown of those over 80 and those resident in care homes who’ve received the vaccine.
Welsh Government statisticians will also publish some operational statistics, including data on vaccine supply and wastage, from Tuesday, January 26, and weekly thereafter.
At the same time the government will also begin publishing a weekly update on progress against the national strategy to enable it to “reflect on progress and look ahead to the upcoming milestones”.
“I want members, and the public, to have access to the latest information on the vaccine programme and I hope these arrangements go some way to achieving that,” Mr Gething added.