Vaccine roll-out for entire at-risk population 'will take until March or April'
Most care home residents will need to wait for their Covid-19 vaccine because of difficulties in transporting the newly-approved Pfizer jab, the head of the NHS has said.
Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, said the jab has to be stored at such low temperatures that it can only be moved a few times, while the packs of doses - with 975 doses per pack - cannot be easily split.
It means the recommendation from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers, which says care home residents and staff should be the top priority, cannot be fully carried out.
Mr Stevens told a Downing Street briefing that the first people to receive the jab from 50 hospital hubs would be the over-80s, care home staff and others identified by the JCVI who may already have a hospital appointment.
GP practices will then operate local vaccination centres as more vaccine becomes available and, if regulators give approval for a safe way of splitting packs, care homes will receive stocks, he added.
He said it would take until March or April for the entire at-risk population to be vaccinated.
England's deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam said the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was "not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times", adding: "It's really tricky to handle."
And he warned: "No system in the world could distribute it really really quickly in a matter of days.
"We have to be realistic how long it's going to take. It is going to take months, not weeks.
"And, for now, the other measures, the tier measures, the social distancing have to stay in place.
"If we relax too soon, if we just, kind of, go 'oh, the vaccine's here, let's abandon caution', all you are going to do is create a tidal wave of infections.
The conference was told that to be effective the vaccine had to be delivered in two doses 21 days apart, meaning people in the first tranche would get their second jab in January.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said scientists had performed "biological jiu jitsu" to turn the virus on itself, adding the NHS would now embark on the the "biggest programme of mass vaccination in the history of the UK" from next week.
"It will inevitably take some months before all the most vulnerable are protected - long, cold months," he added, saying the tier restrictions would continue to be a "very important" part of battling coronavirus.
"So it's all the more vital that as we celebrate this scientific achievement we are not carried away with over-optimism or fall into the naive belief that the struggle is over," he added.
Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer said the logistical issues around administering the Pfizer vaccine had to be overcome because "care homes have suffered enough".
He said: "The first thing I need to say is that this is really welcome news and we owe a debt of gratitude to everybody who's been involved in it.
"Obviously, what we now need from the Government is a practical plan for rolling this out swiftly, safely and fairly.
"We know there are limited numbers to start with and that doesn't cover all the groups that need the vaccine straight away, so we need to know who is going to be vaccinated next week, how's that going to work?
"I think there's a real problem with care homes and how we get the vaccine into care homes - logistical problems because the vaccine has to be kept at such low degrees and cold.
"But we've got to overcome that and we've got to pull together because people in care homes have suffered enough already."