LONDON: Prime minister Tony Blair said the increased demand for influenza vaccine was unforeseen and the government has ordered 200,000 doses to be supplied immediately to overcome the deficit.
Rebutting criticism that his government had bungled in making available the required supply of flu vaccines, Blair said adequate measures have now been taken to ensure that the vaccination program went on unimpeded. He said the shortage has been as a result of rise in demand caused by concern over bird flu.
The government has asked doctors yesterday to administer the vaccinations only on those suffering from chronic disease and the elderly even as the department of health ordered for the replenishment.
The department said most of the 400,000 vaccine doses available with it in contingency reserve are now being distributed to doctors who, it said failed to order enough ahead of time. About 50,000 doses are being kept in reserve for poultry workers in case of an avian influenza outbreak.
The department had on Monday said that there were 11 million people in the groups recommended for flu jabs, with 14 million doses ordered from manufacturers — a generous margin. However, in the face of questioning by opposition, the department had to admit yesterday that 11 million covered only England, and the real total of those entitled to a free jab in the U.K. was 13.2 million. So the 14 million doses were sufficient, but not by a huge margin.
A spokesperson for the prime minister, Tom Kelly, told media that the government had ordered 14 million doses of the vaccine for this year, against 11.7 million doses used in 2004, a 20 per cent increase. These are being delivered through December, though some practices had reported shortages because of higher-than-expected demand during their annual immunization programs.
Blair told the parliament that it is difficult to plan for these things accurately.
The government came under attack from conservative party leader Michael Howard, who doubted its capability to handle a pandemic. He accused health secretary Patricia Hewitt of inefficiency and incompetence.
Hewitt had earlier blamed the GPs for the shortfall, but the department had to admit that it had muddled English and UK figures.
She later apologised to patients who could not get their injections and announced an urgent review of arrangements, including release of vaccine from the contingency stocks. The additional 200,000 doses ordered will be delivered in January.