UK to spend £11.7bn on vaccine rollout and take liability for drug firms

Tom Belger
·Finance and policy reporter
·3-min read
Resident Annie Innes, 90, receiving the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Abercorn House Care Home in Hamilton, Scotland. Photo: Russell Cheyne/PA via AP
Resident Annie Innes, 90, receiving the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Abercorn House Care Home in Hamilton, Scotland. Photo: Russell Cheyne/PA via AP

The government will spend up to £11.7bn ($15.8bn) on securing vaccines for the UK and rolling them out in England, as well as potentially covering drugmakers’ costs if they face legal action.

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s administration won a rare ringing endorsement from a body charged with scrutinising public spending on Wednesday over its vaccine management.

“Government has worked quickly and effectively to secure access to potential vaccines, using the available information to make big decisions in an inherently uncertain environment,” said Gareth Davies, head of the National Audit Office (NAO).

An NAO report into government preparations for potential vaccines said it had successfully signed deals for five vaccines at a cost of around £2.9bn. The deals will provide up to 267 million doses.

The government “chose to purchase different types of vaccines from a range of pharmaceutical companies, to create a diverse set of options, recognising the uncertainty over which ones, if any, might prove to be safe and effective,” the report said.

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It noted the government had changed how investments were approved so that decisions could be accelerated to increase the chances of securing vaccines. Investment decisions that normally take four weeks were slimmed down to four days for proposals by the vaccine taskforce.

But he report noted NHS England & NHS Improvement was working on the assumption it could vaccinate up to 25 million people with two doses throughout 2021. It would mean more than half the population of England waiting more than a year for a vaccine, as the population of England is around 56.3m.

NHS calculations suggest up to 46,000 staff would be needed to deliver the vaccination programme, assuming a 75% take-up rate.

Devolved administrations are handling rollouts in other nations, with no specific vaccine number or rollout cost figures provided by the NAO.

The NAO found the total cost of both the UK-wide purchases and rolling out vaccines in England—as well as investing in global efforts to buy vaccines—was “uncertain,” but estimated at up to £11.7bn.

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Costs could also escalate if drugmakers face future legal action or liabilities linked to their vaccines. Many requested immunity, and in four of the five contracts signed so far, “no cap has been applied to the amount that government could pay in the event of a successful claim against the pharmaceutical companies.”

Davies also warned: "With one vaccine now approved for use and its roll out started, significant challenges remain. Efficient delivery to the UK population presents complex logistical challenges and requires excellent communication with the public."

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