Matt Hancock was tremendously smiley when he led Wednesday’s coronavirus press briefing. In between beaming, he managed to tell us about the ‘fantastic news’ that the vaccination programme has now reached more than 25 million people having had their first dose. He was very keen to sing the praises of this programme — and indeed of his involvement in it — saying: ‘I’ve had the honour of playing my part, we’ve had the honour of playing our parts, it’s been a huge team effort and I’ve got absolutely no doubt it’s the best project I’ve ever been involved in.’ He also rather pointedly talked about ‘those of us who’ve been involved in it from the start’. It’s almost as though a former Downing Street adviser had told a select committee today that the Department of Health had been a ‘smoking ruin’ at the start of the pandemic.
But that wasn’t the only awkward backdrop to this press conference. Despite all his smiles, Hancock was speaking as a letter from the NHS became public. The note warned of ‘a significant reduction in weekly supply’ which will mean ‘volumes for first doses will be significantly constrained’. This means that the over-40s will have to wait longer to get their jab. Oddly, Hancock didn’t mention this, and instead talked about the importance of maximising the uptake among the most vulnerable groups.
This sounds, to put it mildly, like a lot of spin, and the minister was pressed on it in the questions afterwards. The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg asked him what was going on, and Hancock replied:
We’ve opened up to the 50-and-overs, and then we’re going to really focus on getting the vaccine to those who are the most vulnerable. Of course we have a whole load of second doses that we need to deliver. Vaccine supplies are always lumpy and we regularly send out technical letters to the NHS to explain the ups and downs of the supply over the future weeks and what you’re referring to is a standard one of those letters that are sent out.
This didn’t satisfy the press pack, and the Mail‘s Jason Groves gave the Health Secretary an even harder time over when the over-40s might expect their vaccine. Hancock insisted that he could ‘assure readers of the Daily Mail that there is enough supply and we have the NHS across the UK ready to be able to deliver’. By the end of the presser, Hancock was a bit less cheerful and exited at a jog.
So what’s going on here? The government has actually set very conservative timetables for the vaccination rollout and chances are that it will still easily reach its targets of all over 50s being offered the jab by the end of April and all adults by the end of July. These targets have factored in the ‘lumpy’ supply that Hancock mentioned. The reason for his evident increasing irritation with this line of questioning may well be that he genuinely thinks the government is still under-promising. Or perhaps it’s just that he doesn’t want any more suggestions that his department is a ‘smoking ruin’.
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