UK expects vaccine roll-out before Christmas

Britain expects to start rolling out the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine just before Christmas if it is declared safe and effective, health minister Matt Hancock said this morning (16 November).

“We’re working very closely with the company,” he told the BBC.  “We’ll be ready to roll it out as soon as it comes, we’ll be ready from the first of December… but more likely is that we may be able to start rolling it out before Christmas.”

Asked how many vaccines Britain would need, he said it depended on how effective they were at preventing transmission.

The news comes on the same day that the UK government announced two new ‘mega labs’ will open in early 2021 to try to double the UK’s daily coronavirus testing capacity.

The sites – at Leamington Spa in the Midlands and another at an unconfirmed site in Scotland – will increase testing capacity by 600,000.

According to the latest data,  current capacity is around 519,000 – although the number of tests actually processed is lower.

Testing is considered a key way to control the epidemic, but the government’s system has experienced setbacks during the pandemic and has been widely criticised. For example, the British Medical Association has previously rounded on the government for the lack of access to test sites:

“An effective test and trace system is crucial in managing our response and reducing case numbers, and if people cannot get tested then there is no way of identifying local outbreaks and minimising community spread.”

In recent weeks, however, the government has started to pilot mass testing, including those with no symptoms, using a new type of rapid swab tests which do not need to be sent to a laboratory.

However, the bulk of the UK’s testing still uses the standard swab test that need to be analysed in a lab.

Announcing the two new “mega labs”, the government said they will use technology to speed up the process – for example through automation and robotics.

“This means more tests will be processed more quickly and at a lower cost, and therefore faster turnaround times for test results,” the Department of Health said.

The sites will create up to 4,000 jobs, with the labs also being used to process tests for other illnesses including cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases.

They would each add 300,000 to the UK’s daily testing capacity, defined as how many tests can be processed in the lab each day – when operating at maximum.