Government Ignores Council Pleas For Extension Of Vaccine Rollout Amid Concerns Over Indian Variant
The vaccine is currently only being offered to people aged 36 and over in the UK (Alamy)
The government has not granted requests by two local authorities — one of which has seen cases of the so-called Indian variant — for an expansion of the vaccine rollout to all over 18s in the area.
Their calls come amid concerns that the B1.617.2 strain, first identified in India, is more infectious than previous variants and could spread rapidly among unvaccinated portions of the population.
Hazel Simmons, leader of Luton Council, told PoliticsHome that the authority had put in two official requests asking for permission to vaccinate all over 18s in the area but “neither have been approved by government”.
She said the matter had been raised with the Cabinet Office, as well as regional and national NHS officials, on “regular occasions” in recent months.
“We've asked through our CCG and through our NHS and we've put a statement out, so the message is clear. The government is very well aware of what Luton's position is and what it would recommend,” Simmons continued.
Luton is currently lagging behind the rest of the country in regards to its vaccine rollout, with NHS figures showing only 55 per cent of adults in the area had received at least one coronavirus jab compared to 70 per cent of the UK population.
The town also had the highest infection rate in the country between 5 April and 12 April, though cases of coronavirus have started to drop in recent weeks.
“We have a population that doesn't travel, and is digitally poor. So we are working with the NHS to make sure that there are enough [appointments] locally. The national booking service makes it very difficult to overcome this,” Simmons explained.
She continued: “We'd like to be able to vaccinate the whole community, particularly focusing on complete households so that we can offer what we're calling a ring of immunity.
“Most transmission occurs between households and within the household, so it seems sensible to vaccinate everybody living in a household, particularly where you have cross generational communities living together.”
Luton’s director of public health, Lucy Hubber, said that a combination of “complex factors” and difficulting in delivering the vaccine to some communities were contributing to higher cases.
“Luton’s population is much more vulnerable to COVID-19 due to a number of complex factors such as social deprivation, high-proportion of frontline workers not able to work from home, demographic make-up and large numbers of multi-generational households making it a greater challenge for people to effectively self-isolate,” she said.
“We have a super-diverse multi-cultural community, which also means high numbers of permitted international travel will always contribute to our high rates.”
Their concerns follow a rapid rise in cases in the nearby town of Bedford, which some experts fear is being driven by cases of the Indian variant.
Bedford saw the second highest rise in cases in the week to 17 May, with its infection rate rising from 61.2 to 123.5 cases per 100,000 people.
Last week, the mayor of Bedford Borough Council, Dave Hodgson, wrote to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to request an “urgent programme” of vaccination for everyone aged 16 to 40 in the town.
“We are very concerned about the rapid increase in COVID 19 cases of the Indian B.1.617.2 variant in Bedford Borough,” the letter read.
“Whole genome sequencing and SGTF data suggests B.1.617.2 may now be the dominant variant here with 72.7 per cent of sequenced tests being this variant.”
It is understood that this request has also not been approved by the government, despite concerns that the Indian variant could speed up transmission at the same time England is coming out of national lockdown.
Yesterday, the government said that local authorities and health officials should not be “jumping ahead” of the rest of the country by giving vaccine doses to younger age groups.
Adults aged over 36 will be offered the vaccine from Wednesday, with ministers hoping to open the program to some under 35s later this week.
“Our vaccination strategy for all parts of the UK, including the areas of surge vaccination, will stick by the clinical advice set out by the JCVI,” health secretary Matt Hancock told the Commons.
“First, prioritise anyone over 50 who has not yet been vaccinated. Next, second doses to those over 50 are vital which will now be done at a schedule of eight weeks.
“Then, follow the cohorts in priority order, and the age groups as we open them. This clinically approved approach is the best way to save the most lives rather than jumping ahead with first doses for younger people.”
But, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson later appeared to suggest that councils would not be denied additional vaccine doses if they operated outside the JCVI’s guidance.
“There have been varying reports about what’s going on locally, my understanding is that the areas are sticking to the rules which do offer some exceptions,” they said.
"For example, in cohort six, which covers a wide age range, I think around 8 million people, people who are perhaps carers for individuals at home, there are a number of circumstances in which different age groups would be able to get jabs.”
The refusual comes after the town of Blackburn — which has seen a huge surge in cases of Indian variant — was forced to backtrack on plans to vaccinate all over-18s.
Last week, Blackburn with Darwen Council initially said all adults would be offered the jab, before later stating only those with underlying conditions could book a vaccination.
The town’s public health director said on Monday, however, that all over-18s should still book a vaccine appointment, as they may still be eligible under current rules.
"We are offering the vaccine to everyone over 18. There is an NHS eligibility criteria but everybody should book. If they are at all concerned they might not be eligible they should [still] book,” he told the BBC.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We continue to follow the advice of the JCVI which says every effort should be made to encourage people in cohorts 1 to 9 to come forward for their jab, as they remain at most risk of death and serious illness from COVID-19.
“To ensure people have the strongest possible protection, appointments for second doses have been brought forward from 12 to 8 weeks for the remaining people in the top nine priority groups who have yet to receive both doses.
“The government met its target of offering a vaccine to the most vulnerable by 15 April and remains on track to offer a first dose to all adults by the end of July.”