UK vaccine campaign will focus on age not occupation 'to save the most lives'

Police and teachers say failure to prioritise at-risk occupations is a 'damaging betrayal'

The UK will continue to prioritise the delivery of vaccines based on age and not occupation or ethnicity to avoid slowing down the programme.

People aged 40 to 49 will be the next in line to receive a vaccine after all vulnerable groups and the over-50s are covered in Phase 1 of the campaign, the UK government said.

Speaking at a televised press conference on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Britain's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had opted to offer the jab based on age "in order to save most lives".

"This is the fastest and simplest way to roll-out the jab. Our moral duty is to put saving lives first, and that's what we've done," he said.

The committee ruled out focusing on occupations such as teaching and policing for the next phase because this would leave some people unvaccinated for longer.

It said vaccine deliveries based on occupations would be too complex and could slow down the overall campaign.

People aged 30 to 39 and those aged 18 to 29 will be last in line to receive the shot.

The vaccine is not recommended for use in under-18s.

Joint committee chairman Wei Shen Lim said the strategy was based on protecting the most vulnerable, noting that the risk of serious illness from Covid-19 increases with age.

"We know the age-based programme is simple and works very well, and therefore it seems sensible to continue with that, keeping an eye on speed," he said.

"The vaccination programme is a huge success and continuing the age-based roll-out will provide the greatest benefit in the shortest time, including to those in occupations at a higher risk of exposure."

But the decision was lambasted by police, who called it a "contemptible betrayal of police officers".

"Their anger is palpable, this will not be forgotten," tweeted John Apter, the national chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents front-line officers.

Teachers were similarly upset.

The general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, said he was "disappointed that the [committee] had not advised the prioritisation of education staff".

Schools are set to reopen in England on March 8, prompting fears of increased transmission risks.

The government's deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, said those working in factories, in the hospitality sector or driving taxis were more at risk from Covid than teachers and "because of the multiplicity of occupations that would need to be called forward", basing inoculation on where people worked would "damage the pace of the vaccine roll-out".

"It's more important to be in the queue and worry less about exactly where you are in the queue," Dr Van-Tam said. "Making that queue move really fast is the key," he added.

A UK government spokeswoman said the committee's advice reflected the fact that age is “the strongest factor” linked to death and hospital admission, and “the speed of delivery [of vaccines] is crucial".

“All four parts of the UK will follow the recommended approach, subject to the final advice given by the independent expert committee,” she said.

“The UK government remains on course to meet its target to offer a vaccine to all those in the Phase 1 priority groups by mid April and all adults by the end of July.”

The committee’s recommendations came on the same day research found that eight in 10 people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds trusted information about vaccines from family members more than the government and the media.

Abida Bi receives a coronavirus disease vaccine from nurse Zenub Mahood at a mosque in Bradford, UK. Reuters 
Abida Bi receives a coronavirus disease vaccine from nurse Zenub Mahood at a mosque in Bradford, UK. Reuters 

The British Red Cross, which commissioned the study, said the findings suggest family conversations could be key to tackling vaccine hesitancy.

The survey found the main concerns with the vaccine ranged from side effects, speed of production and ingredients.

The committee noted that people from minority groups were at higher risk from Covid-19 but said there was no strong evidence to suggest this was solely due to genetic characteristics, suggesting “environmental or behavioural” factors were more likely at play.

The committee urged the government to increase overall access to vaccines to overcome reluctance to take the shot.

“This may include planning to enable easy access to vaccination sites, supported engagement with local [Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic] community and opinion leaders, and tailored communication with local and national coverage,” the committee said.

“As appropriate, these efforts should consider a longer-term view beyond the current Covid-19 mass vaccination programme and seek to address inequalities which already exist across the wider immunisation programme.”

UK's vaccine drive - in numbers

Updated: February 26, 2021 11:47 PM

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