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19 January 2021updated 23 Jul 2021 12:21pm

Why the government needs to be more transparent on vaccines

The vaccine roll-out is going well – but we need access to more data to develop a clearer picture of distribution rates on a regional level. 

By Ailbhe Rea

Coronavirus vaccines are to be “diverted” to areas in England falling behind on rolling out vaccines to the over 80s, the Times reports this morning, amid rumbles of concern over a “postcode lottery” in the distribution of vaccines across England. 

There is, meanwhile, increasing talk of a “vaccine gap” across the four nations of the UK, as the latest vaccination data shows that Northern Ireland, closely followed by England, has vaccinated the highest percentage of its population, while Scotland and Wales trail behind. This hasn’t been helped by comments from the Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford, who yesterday had to clarify comments suggesting vaccines were being held back until February to prevent “vaccinators standing around with nothing to do”. (He later released a video emphasising that “nobody is holding back vaccines… All our health boards are receiving doses of Pfizer as quickly as they can use it.”)  

[see also: Should Covid-19 restrictions be lifted if only the elderly are vaccinated?]

Is the “postcode lottery” in England a product of problems with the roll-out (such as uneven supply of jabs, or the location of mass vaccination centres), a problem with local healthcare infrastructure (such as the ratio of patients per GP), or a quirk of wholly unavoidable, random and ultimately unimportant other factors (such as disparities in population density, or the distribution of the older population across the UK)? And is the current gap between the four nations a failing on the part of the Welsh and Scottish devolved governments, or is it another function of differences in rates of supply across the UK? Will it vanish in the weeks ahead, as rates pick up in those two nations and slow down in England?

The problem is that we don’t have the data to answer these questions. The Daily Mail, which is holding the government’s feet to the fire over distribution disparities in England, has done its best to look into regional vaccination rates, but only has access to data up to 10 January. The provisional data suggests the north-east is doing better, and from the Health Secretary we know that Slough and Newcastle-upon-Tyne are among places that have offered the first dose of the vaccine to their entire care home populations. But there isn’t up-to-date data on supply or local breakdown to help us develop a detailed picture of what’s going on.

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This is the new frontier of the pandemic response, and the top line is that it is going really, really well. But as (potentially quite minor) questions are raised, it is hard to get answers. Luckily, we’ll probably be talking about little else for the next few months. We have the time. 

[see also: Why is the government overlooking pharmacies that could vaccinate a million people a week?]

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