Boris Johnson has clashed with NHS chiefs over the pace of the Covid-19 vaccination rollout, as the spread of the virus continued around the UK.
The prime minister was frustrated by what he saw as excessive bureaucracy and a lack of data around the NHS plan, culminating last week in a series of “tough” exchanges, according to officials close to the talks.
Downing Street and the NHS said relations had since improved and in a sign of the new sense of urgency Mr Johnson has approved a pilot for a vaccination centre which will stay open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to see if it will speed up the deployment of the vaccine.
Number 10 said it was “completely untrue” to say that there were tensions between Mr Johnson and NHS England chief Simon Stevens, but multiple sources say frustration was running high last week.
Underlining the urgency to accelerate the vaccine programme, a further 1,243 deaths from coronavirus were announced on Tuesday and 45,533 people tested positive, as a new variant continues to exact a heavy toll in the UK.
The move to trials of round-the-clock vaccinations, in recognition of the depth of the public health crisis, follows calls by Labour and some doctors but until now ministers had suggested there would be insufficient demand.
One person briefed on the tensions between the NHS leader and Number 10 said they had been simmering since before Christmas when the prime minister was concerned that some non-frontline NHS staff had been vaccinated before some people aged 80 and over. That age group was selected by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advises government, as the priority to receive the vaccine.
Frustrations were evident in the decision to invite Brigadier Phil Prosser, commander of military support for the vaccine, to a Number 10 media briefing on the programme’s rollout on Thursday, according to the individual.
The person claimed the appearance had been intended to ram the message home to Sir Simon that Mr Johnson was threatening to give the military a bigger role in the programme unless the rollout was accelerated.
NHS insiders rejected any suggestion of tensions, saying that it was Sir Simon who had proposed Brig Prosser’s attendance at the briefing. They pointed out that the UK had the best record of vaccine delivery in Europe.
Downing Street and NHS officials insisted the arrangement in which the military was embedded with health teams was now working well and that Mr Johnson was satisfied with progress. “It's a really good relationship,” Number 10 said.
Another 10,000 members of the military are being held at “high readiness” in case further assistance is needed, according to Ben Wallace, defence secretary.
The NHS has consistently said that it can get jabs into arms at the speed at which they become available. Matt Hancock, health secretary, said on Monday that the “rate-limiting factor” was vaccine supply.
However, on Tuesday the government again refused to say how many doses of the two vaccines — one developed by BioNTech and Pfizer and the second by Oxford university and AstraZeneca — had been made available to the NHS.
A total of 2,431,648 people have been vaccinated since the programme began on December 8. Vaccinations will have to take place at a rate of about 2m a week to meet Mr Johnson’s target of everyone over 70, together with health and care workers and clinically vulnerable younger people, being offered a vaccination by February 15.
This article has been amended since first publication to remove a reference to the spread of Covid-19 accelerating. The spread has decelerated in the past seven days, according to government figures.
Letter in response to this article:
Bemoaning the red tape to administer Covid-19 jab / From Dr CJ O’Brien, Consultant Respiratory Paediatrician, Newcastle upon Tyne, UK