Hospitals are preparing to begin the first phase of the “largest scale vaccination campaign” in the UK’s history.
The first COVID-19 vaccines will arrive at hospitals by Monday ahead of the first jabs being given on Tuesday.
GP surgeries in England have been told to start staffing COVID-19 vaccination centres by 14 December.
Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, said: “Despite the huge complexities, hospitals will kickstart the first phase of the largest scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history from Tuesday.
“The NHS has a strong record of delivering large-scale vaccination programmes – from the flu jab, HPV vaccine and lifesaving MMR jabs – hardworking staff will once again rise to the challenge to protect the most vulnerable people from this awful disease.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has reportedly been referring to Tuesday as “V-Day” and told The Sunday Telegraph that he “can’t wait” to scrap the three-tier system of coronavirus restrictions and “get back to living by mutual respect and personal responsibility, not laws set in parliament”.
When asked if the distribution of the vaccine beginning this week could mean restrictions end sooner, he said: “Yes, it will.”
He added: “There’s no doubt that having the vaccine early… will bring forward the moment when we can get rid of these blasted restrictions but until then we have got to follow them.”
Meanwhile, pictures have been released of freezers that will hold the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccines in the UK.
The images from Public Health England (PHE) were taken at a secure location in England, with the vaccine needing storage temperatures of -70C to -80C.
So far, Pfizer has dispatched initial volumes of vaccine from Belgium, which will be followed by distribution across the UK by PHE and the NHS.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said this will begin with a “post-delivery quality assurance process” to ensure the vaccine’s quality and integrity has been maintained through transit.
This process, which could take 12 to 24 hours, is carried out by a specialist medical logistics company, and relies upon information on the shipment temperature data being supplied by Pfizer.
Over the following few days, each box needs to be opened and unpacked manually, and temperature data has to be downloaded from each box, the DHSC said.
There are five packs of 975 doses per box, and only sites with the necessary licence from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency can split the vaccine packs.
Once all checks are complete, the vaccine will be made available to order by authorised sites in the NHS, with around 50 sites in England so far.
The DHSC pointed out that delivering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine is complex because it needs to be stored at very cold temperatures and moved carefully, so at first it will be administered from hospital hubs.
Defrosting the vaccine takes a few hours and then additional time is required to prepare the vaccine for administering.
These steps mean that it will be difficult to reach those in care homes, who are meant to be among the first to receive the jab.
Mr Hancock said work is under way to make sure these people receive the vaccine “as soon as possible”, despite these “significant challenges”.
“We are prioritising the most vulnerable first, and over-80s, care home staff and NHS colleagues will all be among the first to receive the vaccines.
“We are doing everything we can to make sure we can overcome significant challenges to vaccinate care home residents as soon as possible too.”
The DHSC said more than 1,000 local vaccination centres, operated by groups of GPs, will come online shortly and they will increase as more vaccines come into the country.
Bigger vaccination centres and arrangements through local pharmacies will be confirmed once more doses of the vaccine are available, it added.