The NHS cannot provide thousands of extra doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Blackburn with Darwen borough, despite it having the highest infection rate in the UK and a death rate almost a third higher than the national average.
The local MP said it “beggared belief” that Blackburn’s repeated pleas to continue surge vaccinations had been knocked back, arguing the move will place the NHS under “overwhelming and unnecessary pressure”.
Correspondence seen by the Guardian shows Blackburn’s director of public health warning the NHS that not providing additional doses would lead to avoidable deaths and the NHS being swamped within four weeks, calling it “unfair, unjust and avoidable”.
In mid-May 19,500 extra doses were sent to Blackburn and surrounding areas to distribute by 30 May after an outbreak of the Delta variant of Covid, which originated in India.
Since then, the rolling seven-day infection rate in Blackburn has increased to 436.2 per 100,000 people, almost 14 times higher than the UK average of 32.1 per 100,000.
Concerned about the rise, Dominic Harrison, Blackburn’s director of public health, wrote to the NHS asking to be allowed to extend surge vaccination for another fortnight, with at least 1,000 extra doses offered to vaccinate everyone over 18 who was eligible every day. He said he was backed by Dr Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire’s director of public health.
But their request was refused by Jane Scattergood, an NHS official leading the Covid-19 vaccination programme rollout in Lancashire and south Cumbria.
In an email seen by the Guardian, she said: “I don’t believe that we are able to secure further additional supplies in the same volume as the ‘surge’ weeks in Blackburn as this is inbound supply dependent.”
Explaining the decision, she said it it was “increasingly difficult to drive uptake in the eligible cohorts” during the second week of the surge fortnight in Blackburn.
Last week a different NHS official wrote to Harrison to say: “Surge vaccination periods will not exceed two weeks to help maximise community activation experienced as a result of the additional supply and increase uptake. Any request to exceed this two-week period would need clear evidence of continued demand from the population.”
More than 60% of Blackburn’s adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, she said. Take-up has been significantly under the national average: across the UK, almost 40 million people have had a first vaccine dose – 75% of the adult population – and more than 26 million have had a second. But Blackburn has a significantly younger population than much of the UK, meaning it has a disproportionate number of under-30s who are not yet eligible for a jab.
Scattergood’s response prompted a stark warning from Harrison, who suggested the refusal would lead to unnecessary deaths.
“Failure to continue with accelerated vaccination in [Blackburn with Darwen] has a high chance, at this point of the variant surge, of generating some avoidable mortality, which will be attributable in part to the failure to offer BwD residents vaccination protection equivalent to other local authority areas in the UK [who are at lower risk] … This risk now seems self-evident and is unfair, unjust and avoidable,” he said.
He added: “The national NHS vaccination protection coverage is now very poorly focused on areas of ‘high and enduring transmission’ or variant surges … Failure to accelerate vaccine protection now in BwD and in neighbouring high- and enduring-risk and variant-surge areas will put the local NHS hospital [East Lancashire hospitals trust] at avoidable risk of being potentially overwhelmed with cases in 3-4 weeks.”
He said that other areas – notably Twickenham and Bolton – seemed to be given more leeway and doses for surge-vaccination programmes, complaining: “We are now the highest variant-surge/case-rate local authority in the UK. It is increasingly hard to understand how the NHS is making these decisions on surge-vaccination priority.”
The Covid death rate in Blackburn is already almost a third higher than the national average across the whole pandemic, with 307 deaths per 100,000, compared with 228 per 100,000 in the UK.
Kate Hollern, the MP for Blackburn, blamed the government for the NHS’s refusal.
“Given Blackburn has the highest rate of infections in the country, the government’s decision beggars belief. Without further surge vaccinations, the NHS will be placed under overwhelming and unnecessary pressure – the government’s inaction could cause entirely avoidable deaths across Lancashire,” she said.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We are making phenomenal progress through our vaccination programme, including increasing the number of centres and extending opening hours and capacity in Blackburn.
“On top of enhanced vaccine deployment, the government is reducing the spread of variants in the region with a huge number of preventive measures including whole genome sequencing, surge PCR testing and enhanced contact tracing.”
Asked why it refused Blackburn’s request for more doses for another fortnight of surge vaccinations, an NHS spokesperson said: “NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to ensure eligible people can receive a jab as quickly as possible, with half of adults in England now fully vaccinated and three-quarters having received a first dose of the life-saving jab. All vaccination services are expected to continue to vaccinate in line with guidance set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.”