Coronavirus: tensions over handling of UK Covid vaccine rollout

Vaccinating the population against Covid-19 will cost up to £12bn, Whitehall’s spending watchdog has disclosed, amid details of tensions between health bodies over the rollout.

The National Audit Office said the government would spend up to £11.7bn on purchasing and manufacturing Covid-19 jabs for the UK before deploying them in England.

A report released on Wednesday reveals officials from Public Health England complained that they had been cut out of key decisions despite having previous experience of vaccine delivery programmes.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Commons public accounts committee, said the report showed that the government was right to have backed a number of vaccines but the accountability arrangements were “highly unusual”.

“The organisations who know how to carry out mass vaccination campaigns didn’t always have a seat at the table when decisions were taken.

“The logistical challenges of vaccinating tens of millions of people – on top of the other pressures on the NHS – can’t be underestimated,” she said.

The report examined how the government has approached developing and planning for a mass vaccination programme.

Kate Bingham, the venture capitalist and chair of the vaccine taskforce, was appointed in May and reports directly to Boris Johnson. She has been in charge of selecting which vaccines to purchase and securing UK access to sufficient quantities.

NHS England and NHS Improvement (NHSE&I) and Public Health England are leading on the operational delivery of the vaccination programme in England.

The report disclosed that Public Health England raised concerns in June that “operational experience of vaccine deployment was not represented within the senior boards and groups of the Taskforce”. It was not until September 2020 that both Public Health England and NHS England and Improvement had regular senior representation, the report said.

Current government plans are to vaccinate up to 25 million people with two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine throughout 2021, but these are subject to change depending on vaccine developments, the report said.

The public purse may incur additional costs because the vaccine contracts each contain a form of indemnity protection for the pharmaceutical companies in case of any legal action arising from adverse effects from the vaccines.

No cap has been applied to the amount the government could have to pay if there is a successful claim against the companies in four of the five contracts agreed so far, auditors warned.

The UK has ordered 100 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, as well as 40 million of the Pfizer/BioNTech, seven million of the Moderna, 60 million of Valneva SE, and 60 million of the Novavax jabs.

The Pfizer vaccine is already being rolled out by the NHS after it was approved by the regulator.

Bingham, who is married to the treasury minister Jesse Norman, is expected to leave her post at the end of this year.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said: “Thanks to the work of our Vaccine Taskforce, the UK is now in an exceptionally strong position with a diverse portfolio of 357m doses of some of the world’s most promising vaccine candidates.

“To ensure our country is in the best position to make any Covid-19 vaccine available as quickly as possible and respond to future pandemics, we have worked to build an entire domestic vaccine manufacturing base from scratch by investing in state-of-the-art facilities across the country.”