I am sharing time with the Minister of State, Deputy Butler.
I believe we would all agree that Ireland’s Covid-19 vaccination programme is the most ambitious public health initiative ever undertaken by the State. Following the considerable sacrifices made by everyone in taking action to minimise the risk of spreading the disease, the availability of safe and effective vaccines provides a beacon of hope for a return to some normality. The vaccines protect the lives of those most vulnerable to Covid and will allow us to enjoy again and see the value of things we once took for granted.
By the end of last week, over 500,000 doses of vaccines had been administered. This is a significant milestone and a reflection of the hard work undertaken by the thousands of women and men across Ireland who are working very hard to implement the programme.
The focus to date has necessarily been on older people and healthcare workers. There are strong indicators that the vaccination of this cohort is having very positive benefits. Covid infection rates for hospital workers have fallen by approximately 95%. The number of staff in the nursing home sector absent for reasons related to Covid has fallen from several thousand to several hundred and continues to fall. The latest serial testing results from the nursing home sector showed a positivity rate of just 0.2%, which we can all welcome. Thanks to this, the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET, is today giving consideration to protocols on visitation. I know this is tremendously important to residents, families and staff. The Minister of State, Deputy Butler, and I have been working closely together on this issue and we are looking forward to discussing the situation with the acting chief medical officer later today.
The next phase of the programme, which started this week, sees vaccines being made available to those with underlying medical conditions which place them at very high risk from Covid. In addition, the programme this week is focused on second doses in nursing homes; a small final group of those aged 85 and older, including those who are housebound; healthcare workers, for whom the administration of the first dose will be finished next week; and some initial roll-out to those aged 80 to 84. There is, therefore, a lot of activity ongoing around the country.
There is, understandably, a lot of focus on vaccine supply. Ambitious targets and optimism with regard to the pace of regulatory approval of candidate vaccines have come up against the realities of vaccine production and supply. This can make us lose sight of the merits of Ireland’s engagement with the EU’s procurement process. Ireland has opted into advance purchase agreements negotiated by the European Commission on behalf of member states. Through this mechanism, we have advance purchase agreements in place for seven different vaccines. These include the three vaccines currently being administered in Ireland, a fourth, the Janssen vaccine, which we hope will be authorised by the European Medicines Agency, EMA, later today, and three others which are currently being reviewed by the EMA. We have pre-ordered a little under 18.5 million doses of vaccine. This is enough to vaccinate every man, woman and child in the country twice. We are looking at options to increase this amount via the EU. Just yesterday, an additional delivery of the Pfizer vaccine was secured by the commission, with Ireland due to receive an additional 46,500 vaccine doses this month. This is obviously very welcome.
The terms and conditions of these agreements include a requirement that vaccine doses will not be made available for use until the relevant vaccines have received regulatory authorisation. It has always been an underlying principle of the EU’s procurement process that, prior to administration of any given vaccine, assurances should be obtained as to its safety and effectiveness.
Some have argued that Ireland should be seeking additional vaccine supplies outside of the EU process, which is a very reasonable argument to make. I assure Deputies that Ireland is in regular contact with pharmaceutical companies, the commission and other countries. It will come as no surprise to my colleagues that other countries are not interested in giving up their own vaccine supplies while they are vaccinating their own people, particularly their most vulnerable. Ireland is in the same position. It will also come as no surprise that the pharmaceutical companies themselves do not have as yet undeclared supplies not being procured by the EU or other regions or countries around the world.
The third argument put forward by some is that we should use vaccines that have not been authorised by our own regulator. The Russian vaccine, Sputnik V, has been mentioned in the House on several occasions. The EMA is conducting a review of the Sputnik V vaccine but it is interesting to note the comments of The Irish Times Europe correspondent, Naomi O’Leary, who said yesterday that “The Italian factory announced as the production site for Russia's Sputnik vaccine for overseas orders is a small business that has never made vaccines and is not authorised by the Italian Medicines Agency.”
On the reliability of supply, Moderna and Pfizer have performed well thus far. AstraZeneca has not. It is repeatedly changing its delivery schedules, often at the last minute, and revising down the volumes it will deliver. This is happening right across Europe. It is deeply frustrating for everybody, with so many people looking to get vaccinated as quickly as possible. We are acutely aware of the anxiety caused when these delivery schedules are not met. It should be noted that the Commission and member states, including Ireland, are proactively engaging with the vaccine manufacturers to impress upon them our legitimate expectations that agreed allocations will be met and the need for them to increase supply accordingly.
Some have characterised these shortfalls by AstraZeneca as the HSE missing its targets. This is incorrect; AstraZeneca is missing its targets. The HSE’s target is to get people vaccinated as vaccines arrive, a target which it is consistently hitting. Some 95% of vaccines are being administered within seven days of arriving in the country. The HSE set out to vaccinate those aged 85 and older over a three-week period. The roll-out was not flawless and there were GPs who did not get supplies on the days they were originally told they would. However, the vast majority did and approximately 99% of those in this cohort were indeed vaccinated during the allocated three-week period.
As I said, the roll-out was not perfect, and it is important we learn from this.
I would like to share with Deputies the additional measures that have now been put in place by the HSE to support GPs. A call centre has been established. Dedicated relationship managers have been put in place. A regular GP bulletin outlining available vaccines is being produced. Updates have been made to the order management systems. Distribution process improvements have been made and the distribution ramp-up model has been updated based on learnings over that initial three-week period.
As of 7 March, 165,000 doses, of which over 65,000 were second doses, have been administered to residents and staff in long-term residential care facilities. A total of 262,000 doses, of which over 84,000 were second doses, were administered to front-line healthcare workers. The estimated number of people over 70 to be vaccinated is approximately 480,000. It is expected, subject to availability of vaccine supply as always, that everyone in this cohort will be vaccinated by mid-May.
The impact of the vaccines so far is extremely positive. The evidence from Ireland and from around the world is beyond the most optimistic expectations that were being put to me a few months ago. As more groups are vaccinated, options will become available to modify or lift the existing restrictions, which are having such an impact on people across the country. While there has been, and will continue to be, uncertainty and fluctuations in delivery schedules, we have purchased more than enough vaccines to vaccinate our entire population. Supply will ramp up, we will vaccinate those who are most vulnerable and then move on to the wider population. We will, in time, see a return to a more normal way of life.