More than 25 million people in the UK have received a first dose of coronavirus vaccine but the country faces a looming squeeze on supply and a possible block on doses from the European Union.
The milestone was passed in the first 100 days of the vaccination campaign, but the NHS warned there would be a month-long “significant reduction” in weekly vaccine supply from the end of March.
A letter to local health leaders in England said there had been “reductions in national inbound vaccines supply” and asked organisations to ensure no further appointments were uploaded to booking systems in April.
The Scottish Government says it is seeking clarity on future vaccine supply levels from the UK Vaccines Taskforce.
A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Vaccines are procured on a four nations basis by the UK Government. Our vaccine programme is planned based on the vaccines supplies that we have available – we have been clear throughout that vaccine supplies is the limiting factor in the speed of roll-out.
“We would like to reassure anyone who is scheduled to have their first dose or second dose that these appointments will be fulfilled. The vaccination roll-out is vital for reducing transmission as well as protecting health.
“We remain on track to offer everyone over-50 and in JCVI groups 1-9 a first dose by mid-April, and expect we will reach the remainder of the adult population by the end of July.
“Supplies of the vaccine have dipped before and our vaccination programme will continue to manage the stock available to get vaccines into arms as fast as possible, as we have successfully done previously.”
More than two million people in Scotland have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, with 44% of adults receiving the jag just over three months from when the vaccination programme got under way.
The milestone was reached on Wednesday, five weeks on from when the millionth dose in Scotland was administered in February.
The UK-wide vaccination programme is currently administering the jag to those with particular underlying health conditions and unpaid carers, but people in their 50s also started receiving the vaccine this week.
The scheduling of appointments for group eight (ages 55-59 years) and group nine (ages 50-54 years) in the JCVI priority list continues.
But constraints on vaccine supply are now expected from late March and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday he wanted to ensure “every last vulnerable person” receives a jab before moving on to the under-50s group.
He said: “We will do all we can and do everything necessary to ensure the supplies that are contractually committed to protecting people in this country.”
Hancock also said vaccine supply was “always lumpy” but insisted the April 15 target for vaccinating over-50s would be met after the NHS wrote to local health leaders in England warning that “volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained”.
The Government’s Vaccine Taskforce “currently predict this will continue for a four-week period, as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply”, the letter said.
The UK’s success in its campaign has also contributed to tensions with Brussels as European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen warned the bloc “will reflect on whether exports to countries who have higher vaccination rates than us are still proportionate”.
President von der Leyen said she wanted “reciprocity and proportionality” in exports, pointing out that 10 million doses of vaccine had gone from the EU to the UK.
Although Pfizer/BioNTech jabs were crossing the English Channel to the UK, Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines are not heading the other way, she indicated.
“We are still waiting for doses to come from the UK, so this is an invitation to show us that there are also doses from the UK coming to the European Union so that we have reciprocity,” she added.
Hancock said the supply of vaccines to the UK from EU production facilities was “fulfilling contractual responsibilities and we fully expect those contracts to be delivered on”.
He said the UK had funded research into the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine and had a contract for the first 100 million doses for people in the UK.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has accused the EU of “brinkmanship” over von der Leyen’s stance.