Doctors have expressed concerns that England’s seven new vaccination hubs are diverting Covid vaccine supplies and resources away from local GP-led sites, and are causing confusion among some patients who are now being mistakenly asked to book two separate appointments.
Seven large sites have opened across England – one in each region of the country – with the aim of each vaccinating tens of thousands of patients each week, as the government works to inoculate more than 13 million vulnerable people by mid-February.
They will operate alongside more than 1,000 GP surgeries and hospitals that are already offering vaccinations, with the total number of sites expected to reach 1,200 by the end of the week.
However, at a time when some GPs are still struggling to secure sufficient vaccine supplies, many doctors have described the large hubs as “white elephants” and another example of “wasted investment” from the government.
Professor Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said the funding and vaccines used to set up the new sites “should have gone to general practices and pharmacies, which have well-established systems for administering vaccine programmes”.
“It’s very frustrating that local sites are constantly running out of vaccine which means you can’t then run a smooth service seven days a week,” he told The Independent. “You run for a few days then stop when you’re all out and have to wait until you get new supply. It’s very inefficient.
“We need a guaranteed timetable for delivery of vaccines to these sites. If we were given guarantee of access to supplies every week, we could run-non stop and finish our over-50s quite quickly. I’d estimate in a matter of five weeks if we were given enough vaccine.
“I think these sites are going to be very expensive to run as opposed to local sites. The government hasn’t published the cost, and I expect it won’t be small sums of money.
“And the problem we’ve got at the moment is not a lack of appointments, the problem we have is a lack of vaccine. This is giving a false impression that we don’t have enough appointments and vaccination sites – but that’s not the case.”
He said the hubs were at risk of becoming another example of “wasted investment” and called on the government to support NHS primary care.
Dr Helen Salisbury, a GP based in Oxford, said it was vital the government focused on providing vaccine supply to local surgeries, rather than vaccination hubs.
“We just need more vials delivered to GPs. We have great databases of all our patients – we can contact them,” she wrote on Twitter. “Just give us the vaccine. We can do the rest.”
Doctors have also complained that many of their patients have been invited to the new hubs despite having already been vaccinated or booked in for an appointment at their local surgery.
The government announced on Sunday that letters were being sent out to more than 600,000 people aged 80 and over who live up to a 45-minute drive from one of the centres, inviting them to secure an appointment.
GPs have subsequently been forced to deal with double-booked patients calling up for clarity, with Dr Salisbury describing the project as a “recipe for confusion”.
“Unfortunately NHS England have sent letters out to over-80-year-olds living 40-45 mins from a mass site,” said Brigid Joughin, a GP and clinical director of Newcastle Primary Care Networks.
“This will include all of our patients – the majority we have already vaccinated or made appointments,” she claimed on Twitter. “It will doubtless cause confusion. Let us work together locally.”
Professor Majeed said: “People have been quite confused by these letters. A lot of them have been told they’ve got to drive 30 miles to a centre. If they’re in London or Birmingham, driving that distance isn’t an easy task to do. Typically older people much prefer to go to a local GP site or pharmacy.”
One GP, based in Watford, told The Independent that the government was failing to learn from the “repeated mistakes they keep making”.
“Most GPs seem to agree that the mass vaccination sites will be white elephants,” he said. “They are drawing staff away from other parts of the NHS when we are short already and causing more movement of people.
“They should have one system – ideally, local recall by GPs.”
The seven sites opened on Monday are located at Ashton Gate in Bristol, Epsom racecourse in Surrey, ExCel London, Newcastle’s Centre for Life, the Manchester Tennis and Football Centre, Robertson House in Stevenage and Birmingham’s Millennium Point.
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In addition to people aged over 80, the sites will also vaccinate health and care workers.
Further confusion ensued after health officials were reportedly forced to rewrite 500,000 letters inviting people to the centres, making clear that people unable or unwilling to make the trip would still be offered a jab by their local doctor.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Seven new mass vaccination centres came online this week and they will work hand in hand with GP led sites, pharmacists, and hospital hubs, to help urgently vaccinate people in the top priority cohorts.
“It is made clear in patient letters that people may have also been contacted by their GP services and if they have booked with them, they should take no further action and continue with their original booking.”
Meanwhile, Boots plans to open its first vaccination site in Halifax later this week, offering the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab to patients making an appointment through the NHS booking system.
The pharmacy chain said it hoped to open more sites in Huddersfield and Gloucester in the near future.
Seb James, managing director of Boots, said: “We hope to help the NHS and enable more people to get the vaccination quickly.”