Matthew WeaverThu, 4 February 2021, 2:32 pm
More than 100 Public Health England workers have been given a Covid jab despite not falling into any of the priority categories, the Guardian can reveal.
The decision to vaccinate staff at PHE’s site in Porton Down, Wiltshire, has raised questions internally at the agency about how those involved were allowed to jump the queue for their first doses of the vaccine.
The move has also sparked fears that it will undermine the public health message about the importance of vaccinating priority groups first – a strategy that PHE helped to draw up and promote. In December, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which includes Dr Kevin Brown and Dr Rebecca Cordery, who both work for PHE, decided to limit the current first phase of the vaccination programme to older people, the most vulnerable and their carers.
It is understood that none of the more than 100 staff and contractors at PHE’s Porton Down who have had the jab, fall within these categories.
PHE has confirmed only that “some” staff at the site have been vaccinated, and it has not denied that more than 100 were involved. It has repeatedly refused to give details about how many staff have had the vaccine, when these vaccinations occurred and whether staff from other PHE sites have also received the jab.
Alex Sienkiewicz, the director at PHE Porton Down, said: “The local NHS have offered spare doses of vaccines, at short notice, to their own staff, local residents, and some PHE laboratory staff.”
Salisbury district hospital initially insisted the offer of a vaccine to PHE staff was in line with government clinical criteria but it later withdrew this statement.
A spokeswoman subsequently said: “A number of highly trained Public Health England laboratory staff at Porton Down who are crucial to support the frontline effort were offered Covid-19 jabs.”
Prof Yvonne Doyle, PHE’s medical director, has repeatedly stressed that only care home staff or those on the NHS front line are currently eligible for the vaccine.
A PHE insider, who wished to remain anonymous, said the vaccination of Porton Down staff had created internal concern. They said there had been a “very clear message from the medical director that staff cannot be vaccinated unless working on NHS sites, or in a priority group”.
But they added: “Up to 100 staff at Porton Down were shipped 20 miles to Salisbury to be vaccinated over past few weeks. Many staff are upset as they see it as taking a vaccine away from those that need them.”
Later the insider said more than 100 workers had been vaccinated including private contractors at the Porton Down site.
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Another PHE source insisted the vaccination of staff was an “ad hoc” arrangement.
They said: “It was just a pragmatic solution so that no vaccine was wasted. If there is vaccine available at the end of the day, staff at Porton Down have been invited to have that vaccine. There are cases where if the vaccine isn’t used it will go to waste, especially the Pfizer vaccine which can’t be stored.”
They pointed out that while Porton Down staff are not on the NHS frontline, they are working every day with the virus in the laboratory.
Asked why staff at other PHE sites had not had the vaccine, they said: “It is my understanding that vaccine has been available locally and needed to be used at very short notice.”
Shaun Dix, a spokesman for NHS Bath and North East Somerset, Swindon and Wiltshire clinical commissioning group, said: “The staff at Porton Down have been offered the coronavirus vaccine due to the very nature of their work, which involves closely examining Covid-19, and its emerging variants, on a daily basis.”
Since the vaccine rollout began on 8 December many hospitals have given doses, and in some cases second doses, towards the end of the day to health workers from their area who were on a reserve list, in much the same way as Salisbury hospital has done with PHE staff from Porton Down. The practice led to charges that NHS staff were receiving vaccines ahead of people judged by the JCVI to be of greater clinical need – over-80s and care home residents and staff.
However, hospitals have defended that as a pragmatic way to avoid surplus doses being thrown away by giving unused doses to health workers who in any case were in the JCVI’s second priority group and would have been immunised soon anyway.
They have also pointed out that only small numbers of doses have been administered in such circumstances and that jabbing health professionals on a reserve list has helped to ensure that NHS England’s instruction to keep wastage below 5% has been achieved at a time when vaccine supplies have been limited.
However, there has been tension recently inside many hospitals, such as those in Stoke and Portsmouth, after NHS England issued a “national instruction” to hospitals not to give surplus supplies at the end of the day to NHS staff as second doses. That followed the government’s controversial decision to delay the receipt of second doses from the intended three or four weeks to 12 weeks, as part of a new strategy to increase the number of people who receive a first dose.
NHS England’s edict led to staff who had had their first dose in December complaining that they could not get their second shot even from among doses that might otherwise be thrown away.
Last week the Guardian revealed that surplus Covid-19 vaccines have been given to healthy young people in parts of England as some GPs ran out of eligible patients to inoculate.
Labour and trade unions have called for key workers such as teachers to be prioritised for the vaccine in the next phase of the rollout.