Reports that some vaccinators (GPs and trusts) were being told to throw away any vaccines that were in excess led to headlines over the weekend, and our report on this was cited by a number of media outlets, including the BBC.
I want to shine a bit of light on this because first, I think that it has been somewhat misreported, and second, everyone would agree that throwing away Covid vaccine is a ‘never event’ – and one that could easily be avoided.
In terms of how this story has blown up, I should clarify that we never heard of any direct order from commissioners for GPs or trusts to throw away vaccine. If we had, this would be one of the most scandalous things to come out of the whole pandemic.
But in all the instances we have seen, it seems to be a result of misunderstanding and ambiguity in the guidance. Vaccinators were left with surplus Pfizer vaccine approaching the end of its shelf life, there was nothing in the guidance to suggest what they should do with it, and their suggestions of giving it to staff as a second dose were knocked back. Therefore, they felt they had no option but to throw it away. This is not quite the same as an order to ‘throw it away’.
There are a couple of things to say on this. First, the decision has been made to give more first doses to people in vulnerable groups rather than proceed with second doses. I know there have been differing views, but I think that this is the right decision (albeit taken haphazardly). Now the decision has been made, departing from this does carry risks and as such, I can understand why managers are so keen to stop this happening.
Second, allowing providers to give a second dose to staff if they have been unable to vaccinate the priority groups would incentivise providers to retain surplus vaccine. Which is also unfair on the majority of GPs, who have had systems in place all along to ensure they use any surplus for first doses.
However, this is an issue where I feel it is pointless to assign blame. We are at the early stages of what is the biggest public health programme of all time, and mistakes will be made on all sides – and there must be understanding around this.
The most important thing is that ‘never event’ processes are put in place. NHS England’s intervention over the weekend – where it said providers should have an emergency list of people wanting their first vaccine – was mocked in some quarters. But if it stops a single provider from wasting vaccine, it was probably worthwhile. Because the worst thing is for that vaccine simply to disappear.
Jaimie Kaffash is editor of Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @jkaffash or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.