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29 January 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 6:01am

Is the UK rolling out its vaccines at only half the speed it is receiving supplies?

Data released inadvertently suggests millions of vials of vaccine may be lying unused across the country. 

By Harry Lambert

How impressive is the UK’s vaccine roll-out? In comparison to progress in Europe, it is remarkable. The UK has administered at least four times as many doses as any other major European country. In the week ending 24 January the NHS gave a first vaccine dose to 2.4 million people, and the total number of people vaccinated is now 7.9 million. France, by contrast, has administered 1.2 million doses.

New data released this afternoon shows that the UK’s roll-out continues apace. More than 1.3 million first doses have been delivered this week, almost exactly the same number as on the same days last week, suggesting the UK is on track to continue administering at least 2.5 million first doses per week.

This week’s numbers seemed muted until this afternoon. But, as in previous weeks, the number of vaccinations is picking up as the week progresses. The government is within a day or two of its target to vaccinate the 14 million Britons most at risk from Covid-19 by mid-February. It should increase the pace and reach that mark in time. On the surface it is a remarkable performance, although the UK data is underwhelming when compared with Israel’s.

 
 

The government remains confident that it will meet its target, so we can assume numbers will pick up this weekend. But two questions remain. First, why do numbers vary so significantly during the week? Last Saturday (23 January) the UK administered 492,000 doses. Forty-eight hours later, on a Monday, it only managed around half as many. Why? These differences are not regularly addressed or explained by the government. 

The second and far bigger question is whether its progress is constrained by supply, as the government says, or if the country’s administrative capability is falling short. Are there millions of vials of vaccine lying unused across the UK? 

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According to data released inadvertently in mid-January by the Scottish government, that is quite likely to be the case. This data, which has since been partially confirmed in a briefing given to Yorkshire MPs, revealed the number of AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccine doses expected to be delivered across Scotland from January to May.

This was very useful, as vaccines are delivered across the nations and regions of the UK relative to population size. We can thus extrapolate from the Scottish data how many doses are expected to be available across the UK: precisely the data that the government has not wanted to be made public. (The revelatory data was soon removed from the Scottish report.)

The government has since resisted frequent attempts by journalists to get clarity on supply. That may be because the supply numbers paint a rather more damning picture than the headline number of vaccinations that it releases officially each day. 

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Extrapolating from the Scottish data, the UK will have received 17.9 million doses by the end of this week. And yet the UK has only administered 7.9 million first doses. The country may be administering vaccines at less than half the pace it receives supply.

Based on this data, if the UK administered vaccines at the speed at which they become available, the country should have vaccinated the 14 million people most at risk from Covid-19 five days ago. The Scottish data suggests 15.6 million doses of vaccine were available last Sunday.

The graphs below, based on extrapolations from the leaked data, show the relative mix of Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines expected over the next few months. According to the leaked data, the UK will have received enough doses to give everyone in the UK a first dose by mid-April (in practice, second doses will start to be administered alongside first doses in late March).

 
 

So how likely is the data to be correct? Of the 17.9 million doses calculated to be available by this Sunday (31 January), 8.1 million are listed as from AstraZeneca, with the other 9.8 million coming from Pfizer. Most of the latter – 5.8 million doses – were delivered in December and at the start of the new year. They were listed in the report as being available by 4 January. This broadly fits with briefings given to newspapers in December (“Four million doses of Pfizer Covid vaccine will arrive in the UK this month”, per the Daily Telegraph) and January (“Around 5m Pfizer jabs in the UK”, per the Evening Standard).

The 4 million Pfizer doses are listed in the Scottish report as having arrived. There is no reason to suspect that this is not the case. Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi has said that the company will continue to meet its targets for UK delivery. 

The government says that AstraZeneca is also continuing to supply its vaccine to the UK in line with its targets. The company has committed to supplying the country with 100 million doses in 2021. The Scottish data suggests it will supply 55 million doses by May. This broadly fits with AstraZeneca’s timing.

The government itself confidently briefed out supply expectations earlier this month, with the Times reporting on 6 January that 3.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine would soon be available. This fits with the Scottish data, which lists 3.6 million doses as having been available by 18 January.

Have a further 4.5 million doses been provided since then, as the data suggests? The Times report noted that “AstraZeneca also has 15 million doses in bulk that have yet to be put into vials”.

The data remains obscure. The government would plainly like it to remain unavailable. If it was public, it seems, the UK’s roll-out would appear rather less rapid than it has been portrayed.