UK COVID-19 Update: 'Significant Reduction' in Vaccine Supplies, DHSC 'Smoking Ruin'

Tim Locke

March 17, 2021

Editor's note, 17 March 2021: This article was updated with information from a Downing Street briefing.

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

'Significant Reduction' in Vaccine Supplies

A "significant reduction" in vaccine supplies is expected for up to a month from 29 March, NHS England said tonight, due to "reductions in national inbound vaccines supply".

Vaccination sites have been told to keep to priority groups 1-9.

England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street briefing "vaccine supply is always lumpy".

He added: "These supply schedules have moved up and down throughout this whole rollout, it's absolutely par for the course." He said the programme is still on track to vaccinate all adults by the end of July.

Today marks 100 days since the NHS delivered the first Pfizer/BioNTech jab outside of a clinical trial. More than 25 million people in the UK have now had a first dose.

Over-50s are now being invited for vaccination.

Boris Johnson, 56, told the Commons he'd been called up for his jab and "It will certainly be [the] Oxford/AstraZeneca jab I'll be having."

It isn't clear how he knows in advance which of the approved vaccines he'll be getting when everyone else usually gets what's available on the day.

EMA Oxford Jab Safety Review Continues

Last night the MHRA issued a further statement in relation to many EU countries halting Oxford jab vaccination due to blood clotting concerns.

"It is still the case that it has not been confirmed the reported blood clots were caused by the COVID-19 Vaccine AstraZeneca” Dr Phil Bryan, MHRA vaccines safety lead said. "Blood clots can occur naturally and are not uncommon."

Yesterday, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) said that the "benefit to risk ratio remains positive" for the vaccine ahead of a full statement on its ongoing safety review due to be released tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the European Commission has threatened to block vaccine exports, including to the UK. President Ursula von der Leyen said AstraZeneca had "underproduced and under delivered". Downing Street said the EU had previously committed not to restrict vaccine exports.

DHSC 'Smoking Ruin'

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's former chief adviser Dominic Cummings has described the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) as a "smoking ruin" at the start of the pandemic. He appeared before a committee of MPs to talk about science funding but was drawn on wider issues.

Government procurement was an "expensive disaster zone" that "completely fell over", he said.

He also backed an urgent inquiry into the handling of COVID-19 telling MPs to take a "very, very hard look" at "what went wrong and why".

The COVID-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group has said there should be a judge-led statutory public inquiry. 

NHS 5% Pay Rise?

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank is recommending a 5% NHS pay rise. The recommendation comes in a paper on 'building back better' after the pandemic.

Such a rise would "Improve staff recruitment and retention; improve morale and productivity; improve quality of patient care" it said.

Yesterday, England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the Government’s current 1% offer "is indeed a pay rise, and that's simply a matter of fact".

The BMA said the report "shows the scale of the damage caused by COVID-19 on the long-term plans for the NHS and threatens a further decade of disruption".

Meanwhile, NHS and social care staff in Wales will be getting a COVID-related bonus of £500 after tax and deductions.

Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething, said: "This payment expresses our gratitude to our NHS and social care workforce for their extraordinary contribution in keeping Wales safe."

Virus Variants

Public Health England said two more cases of the Variant of Concern VOC-21JAN-02 (P.1) linked with travel to Brazil have been identified in the West Midlands and Haringey in London.

A new variant has been designated a Variant Under Investigation (VUI) by Public Health England. This follows a report on 9 March of 33 cases of a new variant reported by the Philippines. The variant includes a number of notable mutations including E484K and N501Y, which are found in several other Variants of Concern.

Meanwhile UCL research, published as a letter in the New England Journal of Medicine , found the UK virus variant spread just as rapidly in care homes as it did in the general population.

The researchers say infections may have been passed from staff to residents.

Charles Criticises Anti-vaxxers

"Who would have thought ... that in the 21st century that there would be a significant lobby opposing vaccination, given its track record in eradicating so many terrible diseases and its current potential to protect and liberate some of the most vulnerable in our society from coronavirus?" Those are the words of Prince Charles writing in the RCP's Future Healthcare Journal.

He went on to address long-term health issues, and to speak up for complementary medicine: "For as long as I care to remember, I have suggested that medicine should become more integrated and inclusive. Integration is not simply about how we bring together different perspectives and traditions in diagnosis and treatment. Nor is it about rejecting conventional medicines in favour of other treatments: the term ‘complementary’ medicine means precisely what it says."

Prison Jabs

UCL research has highlighted the need for prisoners and jail staff to be offered vaccination.

Writing in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine researchers report there were 121  COVID-19-related deaths in prisoners in England and Wales between March 2020 and February 2021. That, they say, represents a mortality risk 3.3 times higher than for people outside of prison of the same age and sex.

The Prison Officers' Association has reported 20 deaths among staff up to mid-January 2021, and 4800 staff absences at that time, representing more than 10% of the prison workforce.


NHS Providers issued a report calling for a reconsideration of the approach to inspections and regulation.

Inspections were halted in the first wave of the pandemic but have resumed, giving "a perception that the regulators do not necessarily have a strong enough understanding of the impact of COVID-19 pressures," it said.

Hard of Hearing

Over-70s with hearing difficulties experienced more self-reported depression, loneliness, and memory problems under lockdown, according to a study by the universities of Manchester, Sheffield, and Lancaster.

Results from an online survey of 80 people last summer found face masks acted as a barrier to communication and many audiology appointments were postponed, suspended, or offered remotely.

Lead author, Dr Jenna Littlejohn, University of Manchester, said: "We suspect the use of face coverings and limited group meetings may remain for a while yet, and so our work into the longer-term collateral effects of the pandemic is ongoing.

"We need to ensure people with hearing loss get the correct support from health and social care professionals in terms of supporting mental health and investigating the risk of cognitive impairment due to the enforced social isolation on these people."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.


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