Booster jabs distributed in England for the pre-Christmas vaccination push are to be thrown away because of a lack of demand, a leaked NHS memo reveals.
It is not known exactly how many vaccines will be discarded but it is likely to be “hundreds of thousands”, sources told the Health Service Journal (HSJ), which obtained the memo.
The memo, sent on Thursday from NHS England’s vaccination team to officials managing the 3,000 vaccination sites around the country, said some stocks would reach their expiry dates without being used. It urges them to try to use them up until the last minute before they have to be thrown away.
It said: “There is a quantity of vaccine in the system, which was released in December to support the booster campaign, that will potentially reach its expiry date within the next couple of weeks before it can be fully used. All sites must ensure they make every effort to use this … and prioritise it for all vaccination events coming up until expiry, as per our previous communications.”
Unused supplies that are no longer in date should be “quarantined in appropriate medical fridges” at the correct temperature, it adds. Vaccinators have been using a combination of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs in the booster campaign, which began in England last September.
Primary care bosses blamed the wastage on as many as 30% of people not turning up for their booster appointment.
“Primary care teams have given over 30m boosters, so the last thing they want is for any vaccine stock to be at risk of going to waste,” said Ruth Rankine, the director of primary care at the NHS Confederation. “They have arrangements in place with other local sites and commissioners to reduce this risk but with NHS leaders telling us that about 20% to 30% of vaccination appointments are resulting in no-shows this is a real worry.
“There will be reasons why people are unable to go to their vaccine appointments including if they are self-isolating, have recently had the virus or have decided to get vaccinated or boosted elsewhere.” People should amend their booking if they realised they could not make it to “help manage supply and demand”, Rankine said.
Prof Martin Marshall, the chair of the Royal College of GPs, said: “Whilst everything will be done to keep vaccine wastage to a minimum, vaccines do have an expiry date, and if they are unused after this date or can no longer be stored in the correct conditions, they need to be destroyed.”
The HSJ quoted a vaccination programme source who said that: “The prime minister’s mission last month was to get everyone boosted by the end of the year, so the national team pushed out the vaccine before Christmas … irrespective of whether regions wanted it.
“The relative lack of delivery slots over the holiday period meant it was sent in advance, so hundreds of thousands of doses nationally are now coming to the end of their refrigerated shelf life.”
Government figures on the booster rollout show that the number of people across the UK receiving one has fallen recently from a record 968,665 on 21 December to 111,849 on Thursday.
An NHS England spokesperson said: “The fastest and most successful vaccination programme in NHS history delivered more than 14m jabs during December 2021 alone, following the prime minister’s call for all adults to be offered a booster vaccine by 31 December.
“Despite the deadline having passed, the NHS is continuing to do everything it can to vaccinate as many people as possible against Covid-19 … so please do come forward and book your jab.”
Meanwhile, a new report from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has provided updated figures on the effectiveness of booster jabs against Omicron.
The report suggests the jabs may offer slightly better protection against severe outcomes than suggested by early data, revealing a third dose reduces the risk of hospitalisation by 92% two to four weeks later, although after 10 weeks or more the figure is lower at 83%. Previous figures from UKHSA put vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation at about 88% for Omicron two or more weeks after three doses of vaccine.
“There is further data showing that effectiveness against symptomatic disease is significantly lower compared to the Delta variant, and wanes more quickly,” the report adds.
However, the level of protection against Omicron for this outcome remains similar to the earlier report, at about 65-75% two to four weeks after the jab, falling to about 40-50% protection from 10 or more weeks after the booster.
The latest report also reveals that a loss of taste and smell is less common with Omicron than with the Delta variant.