It is “natural” that some over-70s will receive vaccines before over-80s, a Cabinet minister says, amid criticism of a growing postcode lottery in England.
Health chiefs must begin offering jabs to that younger cohort to avoid “gaps where people are not getting vaccines at all”, Brandon Lewis argued.
But he refused to say what proportion of over 80s should be inoculated in each area before the over 70s are targeted – other than saying it must be “a majority”.
Mr Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, faced questions after Thérèse Coffey, the Work and Pensions Secretary, protested that the “oldest and most vulnerable” in her Suffolk constituency were missing out.
“I am hearing from people that 80-plus and 90-plus-year-olds have not been contacted while some 70-plus patients in the same GP practice were invited for vaccination,” she said.
Mr Lewis said specific problems should be investigated, but defended the process by saying: “We need to recognise that, at every stage of the vaccine process, there will be an overlap.
“You will see some people in the second cohort having vaccines whilst the first cohort are still moving through that process.
“That’s that overlap that I'm talking about – that's quite natural. But they do need to be working through the first cohorts as the priority.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson’s official spokesman later denied that there were regional variations in supplies of vaccines.
“We have ensured that every areas has equal access, and that includes the devolved administrations,” the spokesman said.
“The overarching aim is to ensure that we get vaccines into people’s arms as quickly as possible.”
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick told LBC radio she was “”baffled" that frontline officers were not higher up the priority lists for jabs than over-50s like herself.
The PM’s spokesman said that ministers had made clear there was “a good case for those in public-facing roles who come into contact with other people to be prioritised as part of phase 2”.
But he said ministers would be guided by the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which is currently drawing up lists of those who should be next in line for jabs once the first phase - covering over-70s, health and care workers and those with serious underlying health conditions - is complete.
More than four million people across Britain have received a first dose of the vaccine, allowing the government to bask in the fastest jabs programme in Europe.
However, ministers have sparked confusion by allowing letters to go out to 5 million over 70s, while also insisting over-80s are still the priority – implying vaccines will be diverted to go-slow areas.
And there is criticism of a refusal to release data to reveal how much vaccine has been delivered, where it is in the country and whether there is enough to sustain the pace through the winter.
Speaking to BBC Breakfast, Mr Lewis also repeated that it is “too early” to outline how the national lockdown will be eased in England.
“The Prime Minister said, when we put these restrictions in place, that we'd have a review point in mid-February, we're still some weeks away even from that review point.
“I think we've got to wait until we get to that point and see where we're at, see how the vaccine programme is rolling out, see how the restrictions have worked and then we can look at what the next steps are.
“But, whether that's in February or whether we move forward in March, it's just too early now in relatively early January to give an outline to that.”
It was vital that people who have received the vaccine “still follow restrictions”, he said – adding there was still “a long way to go”.