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Elegantly wasted

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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


David jenkins 19 January, 2021 12:21 pm

i’m sheilding due to chronic chest disease. i’ve had the first jab a month ago. i regard myself as vulnerable to covid until two weeks after my second jab. pfizer – the manufacturer – agree with this.

i therefore cannot go back to work until i’ve been properly immunised.

the local field hospital, and half a dozen surgeries are full to bursting, and i’m sitting here partially immunised, mending classic cars instead of pulling my weight.

does this sound like a sensible way of doing things ?

A non 19 January, 2021 5:29 pm immunosupressed wife (in group 4 now waiting for her first immunisation) was pregnant with twins during the early stages of the pandemic but i had to continue going to work to help out and to pay the mortgage. Birmingam NHS refused to check my covid immunity on the grounds I was a locum. to this day ive not had to the test, i’m pretty sure i caught it early on but it would have been very helpful to know – does this ‘sound like a sensible way of doing things?’ no. we all have our own stories from this pandemic..our patients too..many still waiting for their first dose. unfortunately i think we just have to lump it David , i’m afraid i agree with the edd we need to vaccinate as many people we can with the first dose and just accept it for what it is.

James Cuthbertson 19 January, 2021 6:10 pm

It is scandalous. Anyone doing this should have realised there was going to be some situations where vaccine was present without the planned cohort sat there waiting to receive it. Getting it in anyone’s arm is better than nothing as it could not just help them but could break a chain of infection about to lead into a care home or geriatric ward.

Mike Baverstock 20 January, 2021 8:59 am

Dear Jaimie
It’s difficult to really comment here without all the facts. The Pfizer vaccine can only be used on site and has no shelf-life. We ‘wasted’ some vaccines first time around when we noticed there were six doses per vial but we were initially told we could only use five. The advice changed within a week. Not sure if this situation is the one talked of here. Supply of vaccines is very hit and miss. We were told last week we would get 975 Oxfords. Two days later – having booked everyone, we were told we weren’t getting them. The next day they turned up. We had to arrange a new clinic on a Saturday – but we used them all.
Vaccine appointments vary throughout the country – some GPs are involved with arranging appointments and some aren’t. It’s a lot easier for GPs – like us – whose computer systems can block text a large group of patients. We’ve had no issues using all of our supply on that basis. Other areas do not involve GPs so calling in patients urgently in the case of left over vaccines is much more fraught and time-consuming.