Vaccinating the UK against Covid-19

The global Covid-19 pandemic has led to over 50,000 deaths in the United Kingdom, disrupted health services for many other conditions, and has had enormous economic impacts that have led to massive increases in unemployment and government debt.[1,2,3] With the United Kingdom’s failure to implement an effective test, trace and isolate programme as we have seen in countries such as South Korea and New Zealand, a vaccination programme offers us the best way to finally bring this pandemic under control[4]. It is therefore essential that the Covid-19 vaccination programme is implemented well and that we do not repeat the many mistakes we have seen in the government’s response to Covid-19, such as in the Test and Trace programme.[5]

Primary care should be at the heart of the delivery of the UK’s vaccine programme. With around 7,000 general practices in England, for example, they are easy for patients to access and their staff are generally well-trusted by the public.  Unfortunately, a decade of under-investment in primary care has led to a shortage of general practitioners, very overstretched primary care teams, and reduced the ability of primary care to respond to new challenges.[6] These problems cannot be addressed quickly but the government can take some immediate actions to reduce pressures on primary care. This could include, for example, cutting the administrative burden on general practices by suspending appraisals, revalidation and CQC inspections for the foreseeable future.

To ensure smooth implementation of the vaccine programme, funding is required to pay for new vaccination centres, provide current general practice clinics with the facilities they need such as equipment for transporting and storing vaccines, and meeting the costs of administering a complex vaccination regime to patients who are housebound or living in care homes. Other required measures include funding to rapidly recruit additional staff such as general practitioners, nurses, healthcare assistants to administer vaccines; and staff to provide administrative and management support. It is also essential that primary care services for the management of acute and long-term problems, and preventive programmes such as children’s immunisations, continue to operate normally. This means that additional capacity rapidly needs to be created in primary care so that the vaccination programme does displace or delay other essential clinical work, particularly as Covid-19 vaccines are likely to take longer to administer than the other vaccines currently offered by the NHS, resulting in considerable extra work for primary care teams.

Moving on to the logistics of vaccine delivery, there are currently two types vaccines that are close to approval in the UK. Adenoviral vector vaccines such as ChAdOx1 nCoV-19 are logistically easier to deliver as they can be stored long-term in standard vaccines fridges and so could be administered by primary care teams working in the patient’s usual general practice.[7] In Contrast, mRNA vaccines have to be stored at very low temperatures (minus 70 degrees Celsius for the Pfizer / BioNTech mRNA vaccine) and have to be used within a short period of time after defrosting.[8] Hence, mRNA vaccines are more suitable for large vaccination centres with a high throughput of patients rather than the typical general practice. In the longer term, as more data on safety and efficacy becomes available, it would be appropriate to focus on a smaller number of vaccines, rather than continue with the government’s current approach of having many different vaccine options. As well as simplifying the vaccination programme, this would also cut its costs and reduce the likelihood or patients missing out on their second dose of vaccine because of its unavailability or receiving the wrong vaccine at their second appointment.

Looking forwards, we do not yet know how long the immunity and protection from infection generated by vaccination will last.[9] People may therefore require booster doses of vaccine at regular intervals and the NHS should also plan for this. This requires good call-recall systems, something which general practices can provide because of their computerised medical records and experience of delivering other vaccine programmes. We also need observational studies to assess how frequently “vaccine failures” occur (i.e. how many people contract Covid-19 despite being immunised and what their characteristics are), as well as data on adverse events and safety. The UK, with its system of computerised primary care records, is well placed to generate this data, particularly if linkages can be made to other data such as hospital episode statistics and mortality records. To do this, the problems that afflicted the Test and Trace programme in its early days, such as the failure to record test results in primary care records, must be avoided.[10] This is could be successfully achieved by integrating vaccination recording at the time of vaccination administration in the patient’s primary care record and not creating a separate information technology infrastructure as was done with Test and Trace.[11]

We need to ensure the NHS, and in particular primary care, is well-prepared for the programme and that unrealistic expectations of the timescale are not created amongst the public. The Covid-19 vaccination programme is too important to the health, wellbeing and economic security of the UK to delay its implementation or to get wrong.[12] The government has invested considerable funding into other areas of the Covid-19 response, including funding the private sector to deliver services such as Track and Trace. The funding that has been allocated to the NHS for the vaccination programme is currently small in comparison. Whatever investment is needed for the successful and timely delivery of the vaccination programme should be promptly provided by the government so the programme can begin at scale, rapidly vaccinate the at-risk population of the UK, and finally allow life in the UK to start to return to normal.

This article is based on an editorial published in the British Medical Journal



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9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Frequently Asked Questions about COVID-19 Vaccination.

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