UK denies vaccine shortfall will slow lockdown easing plan

London, March 18 (AFP/APP): Britain insisted Thursday its plan to ease coronavirus lockdowns in the coming months remained on track, despite news that its vaunted vaccination programme faces a potential pause in April.

The state-run National Health Service in England has warned in a letter to local vaccination centres that doses will be “significantly constrained” from March 29 for four weeks. The next phase of the inoculation campaign, covering people in their 40s, will have to be suspended until May, the letter said.

Reports said the problem was linked to a delay in getting five million jabs sourced from India by UK-based drugs giant AstraZeneca — the same company whose supply issues have caused anger in the European Union.

“It’s a very complex international supply chain and that does mean occasionally we will experience issues and that’s what we’ve experienced right now,” cabinet minister Robert Jenrick told Sky News. But the government was sticking to its target of offering a first dose to every adult by the end of July, he said, after Britain on Wednesday said it had surpassed 25 million jabs delivered.

The government’s phased easing of its third lockdown in England, which was imposed in January amid a winter surge in caseloads of Covid-19 and resulting deaths, hinges on the success of the inoculation drive.

– EU threat –

“There’s no reason to believe the roadmap is affected by this temporary shortage in supply,” Jenrick stressed of the relaxation plan. AstraZeneca’s vaccine, developed with Oxford University, provides the bulk of Britain’s campaign.

The company said its “UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption”, but made no mention of possible problems in India or elsewhere. Britain’s current other vaccine provider is Pfizer, which denied any issues with its UK delivery schedule.

The supply issues are another headache for AstraZeneca after its jab was suspended in several EU countries, pending a review by the European Medicines Agency due later Thursday following isolated cases of blood clots and brain haemorrhages.

The EU meanwhile threatened on Wednesday to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure “reciprocity” with other suppliers, urging Britain to send Europe more jabs. Britain reacted angrily to the threat, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab suggesting the bloc was engaging in “brinkmanship”, and has dismissed any medical issues with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson, 56, said on Wednesday he would take it vaccine “very shortly”. England’s deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam also pushed back at the AstraZeneca suspension in European countries including France, Germany and Italy.

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