COVID-19 vaccine shortages “will last for months” which could mean it takes longer for restrictions to be eased, professor Chris Whitty has warned.
England's Chief Medical Officer (CMO) said the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine improved supply issues but there was still not enough jabs available worldwide.
Prof Whitty said in a letter to doctors on Friday: “Currently the main barrier to this is vaccine availability, a global issue, and this will remain the case for several months and, importantly, through the critical winter period.
“The availability of the AZ vaccine reduces, but does not remove, this major problem. Vaccine shortage is a reality that cannot be wished away.”
Watch: What do we know about the Oxford vaccine
Boris Johnson has said lockdown restrictions could be eased by Easter if the tier system and vaccination programme are successful.
The deployment of the newly approved Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine will begin on Monday, almost a month after the roll out of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which has been given to 944,539 people in the UK so far.
But second doses of either will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.
In response to criticism from GP leaders about the change of plan, a joint statement from UK CMOs said while it was “difficult” to reschedule second jabs, it was better to offer more people the “substantial protection” given by the first dose within two to three weeks, as the UK waits for more vaccine stocks to become available.
The government initially claimed it would possibly have 30 million doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca by last September but this was later reduced to 4 million by the end of last year.
But only 530,000 doses were ready to distribute by 30 December.
The Business department blamed the delay on quality testing which is required for every batch, with the UK regulator only issuing conditions for authorisation on Wednesday.
England’s deputy CMO Professor Jonathan Van-Tam also blamed possible delays on a lack of “fill and finish” supplies across the world including vials.
A government spokesperson said: ‘While fill and finish capacity has been in short supply globally, the UK took quick and decisive action to scale up our domestic vaccine manufacturing capabilities early on.
‘This includes the swift action we took in the summer to secure crucial fill and finish capacity in the UK which is now being used for the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, so that the public can receive doses as quickly, safely and effectively as possible.
‘We will start a vaccination programme using this vaccine next week, with 530,000 doses available from Monday and tens of millions by April 2021.’
The government has ordered 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab.
Watch: The political U-turns and broken promises of 2020