It is “surprising and disappointing” that the UK has not followed the leads of Canada, the US and the EU in approving the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 18-year-olds in order to tackle the latest increase in coronavirus infections, according to the public health chief in the UK’s worst hotspot.
The criticism comes amid urgent calls for a “a Twickenham-style vaccination programme” in Blackburn. Kate Hollern, the Labour MP for the area, said the government had made more than 10,000 vaccines available over the weekend in Twickenham but would only provide Blackburn with 14,000 additional doses over two weeks, despite requests for more.
Dominic Harrison, the director of public health in Blackburn with Darwen, which has the UK’s highest infection rate at 390.1 per 100,000 people, said that the national vaccination policy focusing on age and vulnerability had discounted those most at risk of infection. He argued that the vaccination strategy had “not taken sufficiently into account the inequalities” that fuel transmission.
Of the 21 people who had been admitted to hospital in the area as of Friday, 13 were under 55. Approximately half of all people in hospital with Covid in East Lancashire hospitals NHS trust have not received a vaccination.
“It’s surprising and disappointing that we aren’t ahead of the game [in approving the vaccine], and of course, given that most of the cases of the new Delta (India) variant are in that younger cohort … the fact we haven’t made that decision is not helping our surge response”, Harrison said.
After the mass vaccination event in Twickenham, west London, on Monday, where thousands of young people queued to receive their first dose in scenes compared with Glastonbury festival, other public health officials in northern England renewed calls for surge vaccinations.
A public health official in a hotspot in north-west England praised the “braver directors of public health” such as those in Twickenham, who “just decided what’s in the best interest of their population”.
They said they had been prevented from carrying out similar mass events by vaccine supply and an insistence at sticking to the JCVI age-criteria. “It’s just madness. I’ve never seen … as many [kind of] fights behind the scenes” between local people and those at national bodies such as Public Health England, they said.
“We need a Twickenham-style vaccination programme in Blackburn urgently,” Hollern said. “The rapidly spreading infection in Blackburn is a direct result of the government’s failure to prioritise areas with higher rates,” she added.
The UK’s MHRA was the first in the world to approve the Covid vaccines that had been tested in large clinical trials for use on adults. Last week, the former government adviser Dominic Cummings said “senior people” had expressed concerns that the vaccine taskforce had lost its “aggressive approach” since the departure of “vaccines tsar”, Kate Bingham.
Harrison said the area was “in talks” with the NHS to continue with increased supplies, although he warned that maintaining this would only place the town at a similar “risk profile” to wealthier areas of the country.
“The vaccination programme has not been matched well with areas of high transmission. So we urgently need that policy to change,” he said.
Areas with larger percentages of frontline workers, multigenerational families in cramped housing and people on lower incomes who found it difficult to self-isolate were vulnerable to higher rates and should be given increased vaccine supplies, he said.
“If you’ve got a third less transmission and half as many deaths, but you’re getting the same amount of vaccination for your population, you are getting massively more protection for your population, because you’ve got both lower risk of getting it in the first place and you’ve got the same level of vaccination protection,” he added.
He said one of the consequences of the existing policy was “that areas of high and enduring transmission have got surges of the variant, which is “neither helpful for [Blackburn], nor for the national efforts to contain the spread”.
“What we need to do is learn to match the risk of those variants with effective local action, not to catastrophise them.”