Matt Hancock’s press conference in Downing Street on Wednesday evening felt at times as if it were being delivered from an alternative universe.
Thirty minutes before the health secretary appeared in front of the cameras, a bombshell letter from NHS England was leaked to journalists saying there would be a “significant reduction” in vaccine supply and health chiefs had been ordered to stop booking first-dose appointments for anyone under 50 for all of April.
In a surreal opening line, Hancock began by saying: “I’ve got some fantastic news to bring you on the vaccine rollout”, adding that vaccinations would begin for those aged 50 to 54 and praising the milestone of 25 million people having received their first dose.
Both no small achievements – but the next stage of his explanation was almost comical. He announced that the health service would now prioritise unvaccinated people of 50 and over, and second doses, before moving on to people under 50, without mentioning the expected shortage.
The NHS England letter was already headlining multiple news outlets, including the Guardian, but Hancock, at least, appeared blindsided that the news was out. Some sources have speculated that the timing may have been intentional – the letter was sent at 4pm and leaked into journalists’ inboxes just 20 minutes later.
With tensions bubbling between NHS England and the Department of Health about briefings to the media about the possible acceleration of the vaccine deployment, as well as a perception the government is seeking to take too much credit for the NHS’s ingenuity and hard work, the timing of the letter’s distribution looks suspiciously convenient.
The main irritation to NHS chiefs is briefings to a number of papers that the vaccine programme is two to three weeks ahead of schedule, something that now looks unlikely to continue. Those promises included all people of 40 and over possibly getting a first dose by Easter, which now looks likely to be delayed by a month.
There is also internal government annoyance that those possibilities were briefed in the first place – and at newspapers for making their own predictions, because the government targets appeared so deliberately unambitious.
The more charitable explanation – cockup rather than conspiracy – is that the timing was a mistake and a communications error, which the Department of Health wanted to smooth over by reassuring the public, correctly, that the supply issue should not affect the government’s overall targets. But the result was a press conference that appeared deliberately opaque.
Hancock called it a “technical letter” that was standard communications to NHS chiefs, which NHS sources said was not the case. But it is certainly true the ambitious targets to give all people of 50 and over, and vulnerable groups, their first jab by mid-April, and all adults by the end of July, should still be met.
Government sources confirmed the delay was related to AstraZeneca production, but the waters were muddied further by the company’s statement that “our UK domestic supply chain is not experiencing any disruption and there is no impact on our delivery schedule”.
What that does not address is the firm’s international supply – which would correlate with the phrasing of the NHS letter which talks about a reduction “as a result of reductions in national inbound vaccines supply”.
The most baffling question is why was the obfuscation necessary? If Hancock or AstraZeneca had transparently explained the source of the supply dip, talked through who it would affect and reiterated that the only difference would be that the UK would not be so far ahead of schedule, while reassuring the public that targets would still be met, they could have been looking at very different newspaper front pages.
But in this parallel universe, there are many questions left unanswered.