Comment: False start to Covid vaccine rollout risks losing public goodwill and buy-in

At the current rollout rate it would take over three years to vaccinate four million people across the country.
Comment: False start to Covid vaccine rollout risks losing public goodwill and buy-in

Maggie Timmins (103) gets her Covid vaccine from Una Burke at Oakview Nursing Home, Belturbet, Cavan on Wednesday morning. However, the first three weeks of the vaccination rollout have gotten off to a false start and don’t exactly inspire confidence. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

We’re three weeks into the rollout of a national Covid vaccination programme and by the weekend we will have 140,000 vulnerable citizens and frontline healthcare workers immunised.

At less than 3% of the population, the figures highlight the mountain we have to climb to get to a critical mass of 70% or more. At the current rollout rate - more than 6,000 people per day, seven days a week - it would take over three years to vaccinate four million people across the country.

There is clearly a need to step up the pace, something the Government is promising to do as more vaccines are approved and become available.

The EU has now urged member states to vaccinate a minimum of 70% of the adult population by the summer.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly and others have staunchly defended the pace of the vaccine rollout and last week rejoiced that, for a fleeting moment, Ireland had vaccinated more citizens per head of population than any other country in the EU.

Minister Donnelly’s glee, at picking up the pace since the first jab was given on December 30, was tempered with caution.

Ireland had the highest vaccination rate in the EU27 “for now” and “it won’t always be like this”, he tweeted.

In a further update this week, commending efforts to hit the 140,000 milestone this weekend, Minister Donnelly further cautioned that there would be “bumps on the road” and that the vaccination journey was just beginning.

The celebrations were to be short-lived as Ireland has since been eclipsed by other EU member states, including Denmark, Lithuania, Spain and Italy, who are now leading the vaccine league table.

While this is not a race, the sooner we can get most of the population vaccinated, the sooner we can all return to some form of normality, economically and socially.

Under pressure to provide specific details on vaccine supplies and an endpoint for the programme, the Health Minister has given the end of September as the target date for immunising four million people, the majority of the population.

This national target, however, also comes with a health warning. It is contingent on the approval of the Oxford / AstraZeneca vaccine by the European Medicines Agency at the end of this month, as well as a steady and uninterrupted supply of all approved vaccines.

Already we have seen a blip in supply from Pfizer, albeit a small one that should not cause inordinate delays, but it is a forewarning that further disruptions are likely in the months ahead.

There is also no firm date for deliveries of the Oxford vaccine, which are expected in mid-February, but on a positive note GPs and pharmacists are ready to play their part when they do arrive.

In the meantime, cracks in the rollout and planning of the vaccination programme have emerged even at this early phase of implementation.

Two Dublin hospitals, the Coombe and Rotunda, were left red-faced for giving ‘leftover’ vaccine doses to the relatives of staff who were not on the priority list. While the incidents smacked of nepotism, they were blamed on the lack of clear guidance to manage the precious supplies of vaccine.

The HSE has since issued further guidance to clear up any doubts while HSE boss Paul Reid said lessons must be learned and the Health Minister said the incidents “shouldn’t have happened”.

Then came the ‘queue jumper’ controversy amid reports of the vaccine being made available to managers and administrative staff in the health service, construction workers, and other non-frontline staff, while many staff at the Covid coalface were left in limbo as to when they might get it.

Hospital staff in Nenagh were among many crying out for access to the vaccine while builders working onsite at Kerry University Hospital received their first Covid jab. It made no sense and only incensed those putting their lives at risk on the frontline.

There were questions too over the vaccination priority list and whether it needs to be reviewed. What about carers looking after vulnerable family members and loved ones? Or residents in mental health facilities? Or the thousands of asylum seekers sharing cramped rooms and living spaces and unable to keep a distance.

And let’s not forget the ‘pen and paper’ approach being adopted in the absence of a vaccination computer system that we knew we would need months ago.

In short, the first three weeks of the vaccination rollout have gotten off to a false start and don’t exactly inspire confidence.

Perhaps part of the problem is the lack of clear ownership of the national programme.

There is no consistency in how the programme is being rolled out on the ground. What happens in Cork may not be happening in Donegal and so on.

And there is little transparency around who calls the shots or where the buck stops.

Is it the Department of Health or HSE and National Immunisation Office? Or does it fall back to the strategy or advice of the high-level taskforce on Covid-19 vaccination or the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC). 

How does the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet) and its subcommittee feed into the vaccination programme? And what about the cabinet sub-committee on vaccines?

Recent events underscore the need for greater accountability, whether it is the Minister for Health of a minister for vaccines, the issue requires clarity.

A new survey this week found that 75% of the public said they will definitely get the vaccine when available. While there is no certainty as to when that will happen, it will be late September, at best, or before the year is out, at worst.

In the meantime, the least we can expect is good governance, accountability, and transparency around the vaccine rollout.

Promises to routinely publish vaccination data must be honoured. A vaccination tracker is needed to keep us on course, to give us hope, and to help change the conversation from Covid hotspots to protected or immunity zones.

Otherwise, the Government risks losing public goodwill and buy-in in the face of this significant public health emergency. And were that to happen, Covid would continue to thrive at all of our expenses.

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