Factors at play include high uptake plus stockpiling for second doses, but Matt Hancock promises ‘bumper weeks in March’
Pfizer is reducing production of its vaccine this month to increase the amount it can make in March. Photograph: Guy Bell/REX/Shutterstock
The number of Covid vaccines administered in the UK has fallen by over a third in the last week as ministers warned of a short-term dip in supply coupled with stockpiling to ensure people get second doses within the recommended 12-week limit.
The latest data showed 192,341 people received a first jab on Monday, the second-lowest daily total since 17 January – taking the number of people in Britain who have had an initial Covid vaccination to 17.9 million.
On Sunday the number of vaccinations was 141,719, the lowest figure since the UK daily count began on 10 January. Taken together, the total for the past two days is 35% lower than the equivalent figures last week.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said in a radio interview the country could expect “a quieter week this week” for vaccinations because of supply pressure but that the rollout would bounce back next month. “We’re going to have some really bumper weeks in March.”
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, also said in her daily press briefing that there had been “a temporary dip”, but added there were other factors at play to suggest that UK vaccine stocks had been reduced.
Other reasons for the slowdown, the first minister said, included “the higher than expected uptake so far, and also the need to reserve stock so that second doses can be offered to people who received their first dose in December”.
UK ministers have repeatedly said they expect supplies to be uneven, particularly while Pfizer reduces production at its European plant in Belgium during February to increase the amount it can make in March. AstraZeneca has promised to produce an average of 2m doses a week, but it acknowledges its production can be lumpy.
Modelling documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Monday also appear to suggest that the UK could speed up its pace of inoculation towards the end of March.
A document from Sage’s modelling subcommittee produced earlier this month suggests that vaccinations could potentially be carried out at the rate of 4m a week from 22 March based on scenarios “commissioned by Cabinet Office” – although a second, more conservative forecast, suggests 4m a week could be hit by 25 April.
A little over a week ago, with average vaccination rates running at more than 400,000 a day, the UK hit a target to provide a vaccine to the 15 million people in the first four priority groups. Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “Maybe they used up a lot more doses in the first part of February to make the self-imposed target and to look good.”
Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said it was too soon to tell if there were any serious problems. “We probably need another week of data to have a clearer picture around whether this is a concerning trend, or indeed part of natural fluctuations,” he said.
Sturgeon said Scotland would follow an announcement made by England over the weekend to bring forward a target to reach all people in the first nine priority groups by 15 April instead of 30 April.
That would mean everybody over 50 being offered a first shot shortly after Easter, as well as those with underlying health conditions plus health and care workers – a total of 32 million people across the UK. A rolling programme of second jabs in large numbers would also have begun by then.