Social distancing and face masks for ‘foreseeable future’ despite vaccine
Social distancing, face coverings and hygiene measures will need to be in place for the “foreseeable future” despite the approval of a Covid-19 vaccine, Wales’ chief medical officer has warned.
The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has received approval from the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), with 40 million doses shortly available for delivery across the UK.
But the Welsh Government has warned that the impact of the vaccine, which will be rolled out in days, will not be seen nationally “for some months”.
Dr Frank Atherton, the chief medical officer for Wales, told a press conference that the vaccine is effective at reducing people’s susceptibility to Covid-19.
However, Dr Atherton said “the jury is still very much out” on the question of whether the vaccine reduced community transmission, which would only be known after it had been rolled out.
He told a press conference in Cardiff that it would be “really unwise” to lift coronavirus restrictions and urged people to continue following measures to reduce the spread of the virus.
These including keeping contacts with others to a minimum, staying two metres apart, washing hands regularly, wearing a face covering when required and avoiding touching surfaces others have touched.
“We can’t know yet whether the vaccine will reduce community transmission,” Dr Atherton said.
“It would be really foolish for us to say at the moment ‘we’ve got a vaccine, it’s back to business as normal’.
“We really have to maintain those measures which will keep us safe over the winter and as we work through that lengthy process of vaccinating and getting hopefully through the whole population.”
Dr Atherton said social distancing, face coverings and respiratory hygiene measures would have to be maintained “for the foreseeable future”.
“If we throw those away now, we really will run into problems,” he added.
Approval from the MHRA is the first step of Wales’ vaccination roll-out plan, which has been prepared since May.
There are still a number of stages required before people begin to receive the vaccine but this process is expected to happen over the next week.
These include training materials for staff and information leaflets for patients being finalised, and experienced immunisers being trained.
The vaccine, which is administered in two doses, will initially be prioritised for those aged 80 and over, care home staff and residents, and those working in health and social care.
Two specialist sites have been identified as appropriate delivery centres for the vaccine, which must be stored at very low temperatures of below -70C.
Health boards will collect the vaccines directly from the two sites.
Dr Atherton said the Welsh Government is “currently exploring ways” to get the Pfizer vaccine to care home residents as there are “particular challenges” due to its storage requirements.
He insisted all four nations were “intending to follow” the clear list of priorities for vaccination within the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) guidance.
“However, that has to take into account operational concerns. I think it would be scandalous to waste the vaccine and not to use it wisely,” Dr Atherton said.
Dr Atherton said it was “very difficult” to provide the vaccine to numerous sites and it would initially have to be delivered at a “small number”.
“There are, of course, other vaccines in the pipeline, the Oxford vaccine for example, which doesn’t have such stringent requirements around temperatures management and control,” he added.
He was unable to give an exact date or timeframe but said scientists were working through that process “as quickly as we can”.
Dr Gillian Richardson, co-chair of the Covid-19 Vaccine Programme Board, said it was hoped that a “mobile model” could be developed to safely deploy the vaccine to care homes.
All NHS organisations in Wales have undertaken simulation exercises to test the country’s distribution and storage arrangements.
These include tests carried out on November 26 and November 12 that involved all key stake holders from the seven health boards, along with partners and key pharmacy leads.
“Cold chain maintenance was maintained throughout the distribution exercise with no temperature excursions or delays,” Health Minister Vaughan Gething said.
“All deliveries were received at the correct locations and receipt of deliveries recorded electronically on the Welsh Immunisation System.
“Wales is ready to deploy the vaccine in phases, starting with hospital sites and then community settings.”
People in Wales will be sent automatic appointments detailing the location where they will receive the vaccination, which will not be mandatory.
Those receiving the vaccine will be given a credit card-sized NHS Wales immunisation card which will have the vaccine name, date of immunisation and batch number of each of the doses given written on them.
These will act as a reminder for the second dose and for the type of vaccine, as well as giving information on how to report side effects.