A record 343,000 people in the UK received a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine on Tuesday as the NHS scaled up its push to vaccinate 15 million people by mid-February.
Downing Street said it was increasingly confident that it would hit the target as long as the supply was maintained, although with 25 days to go it will require about 400,000 immunisations a day to remain on track.
A total of 4.6 million people have now received a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech or Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in the UK out of 15 million in the four highest priority groups, which comprise care home residents, NHS and care home workers, people aged 70 and over and those with serious medical conditions.
However, No 10 acknowledged on Wednesday that the numbers of daily doses “will fluctuate”, underlining efforts to bring more vaccination sites online. On Monday, the NHS provided 204,000 first doses, well below the target rate.
Ministers insist there is enough guaranteed supply from Pfizer and AstraZeneca to hit the target, but have refused to say how many doses are in the system, prompting complaints from the British Medical Association (BMA).
Richard Vautrey, the BMA’s GP committee chairman, said that “despite having the staff and resources available, some GP-led sites are not able to vaccinate patients at the rate at which they could if they had continued access to the vaccine”. He called on ministers to be honest about how much vaccine was in the pipeline.
Some areas of the country, such as Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, have only just received their first supply of the vaccine “in the past few days”, according to local MP Rob Butler, who raised the subject at prime minister’s questions on Wednesday.
The government says it does not want to release detailed information about vaccine supplies, in part because it would allow other countries to see how much is available to the UK – an explanation that has surprised drug industry sources in private.
Pfizer has said it is reducing production in Europe temporarily while it prepares to scale up its manufacturing site in Belgium. But AstraZeneca said it has already provided 1.1m doses and will deliver on or in excess of 1m this week, and 2m a week by the middle of next month.
On Wednesday, Downing Street ruled out earlier calls from the home secretary, Priti Patel, for police officers to be included as one of the nine highest priority groups in the first phase of the vaccination programme.
The prime minister’s spokesman said the government would stick to the priority list previously outlined by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI): “We will continue to work through phase one. The medical experts have set out clearly that it is those in phase one who are at the most clinical risk.”
When asked if police would be promoted up the vaccination priority list, Patel had told LBC that she said and other ministers were “working to achieve that” and “I’ve been saying to policing partners to get ready”, although she said the final decisions rested with the independent JCVI.
Downing Street said police, teachers, members of the fire service and other key workers who come into contact with the public would be likely to be considered a priority in the second phase of mass vaccination, after all over-50s were inoculated.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We are confident we can hit that mid-February target. The fact that we’ve been able to increase the number of doses that we are able to do on any given day, obviously that will fluctuate. But we’ve been able to bring more vaccination sites online, as we move through this month and into next month, and that will allow us to hit the target.”