Private firms go to the back of the queue for Covid vaccines – for now

Companies could potentially organise workplace vaccinations – but governments have bought up almost all supplies


AstraZeneca has become the latest pharmaceutical giant to deliver a dose of encouraging news in the race to find a vaccine for coronavirus.

The Anglo-Swedish company said that its experimental vaccine looked to be both safe and effective in preventing Covid-19. There are dozens of companies developing vaccines, but only a handful are close to delivering a jab, which could potentially hit the market as early as January.

The Government has said that vulnerable people and front-line staff will be first in line to get the vaccine, but what if a company wanted to inoculate its workforce? How would this work, and is it even possible?

How do company vaccination programmes work?

The flu jab is the best example to use to understand how office vaccination programmes work. It is a relatively straightforward process. The two most common ways that employers provide flu vaccinations for their employees are through issuing a voucher that can be redeemed at participating pharmacies, or arranging for a nurse to administer vaccinations in the workplace.

“There are different companies that offer variations of these schemes, including Bupa, Boots and Superdrug, to name a few,” said a spokesman for the CIPD, the body representing human resources professionals.

A company could contact Bupa and either arrange for a vaccination clinic in the office with a nurse delivering the jabs, or vouchers for employees to use in local pharmacies.

Bupa, in turn, buys the flu jab from a wholesaler, who procures it directly from the pharmaceutical company manufacturing the vaccine. Wholesalers are an important part of the framework, because they both procure and distribute vaccines and medications for the NHS and private sector.

But the expected timeline for Covid-19 vaccines to be made available could be a lot longer, and certain groups of people will be prioritised, as shown below.

Martin Sawer, executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association (HDA), which represents suppliers of medicines to pharmacies, hospitals and doctors, points out HDA members distributed 95pc of medicines in the UK. More than 95pc of NHS medications are distributed by HDA members as well.

The body is in the process of signing a distribution agreement with the Government to supply Covid vaccines to GPs, private care networks and pop-up vaccination stations, such as in school halls or stadiums. 

Sawer says none of his members can procure the vaccines directly, as Public Health England has bought up the stock. That means it would be impossible for a private company to arrange for workplace vaccinations at the moment.  

“On the flu vaccine our members procure it directly from just four manufacturers, including GSK and Sanofi Pasteur, it is very specialist.”

What about Covid vaccination in the workplace?

In the UK it would be impossible, at the moment, for a company to “jump the queue” and procure vaccines for its own staff members. 

A spokesman for the Department of Health said while there were no rules preventing companies or  individuals from buying Covid vaccines directly from pharmaceutical companies, it would be difficult as all doses have been snapped up by governments around the world.

Moreover, pharmaceutical companies have been at pains to say that they will sell first and foremost to national governments for wider distribution. 

“It is very unlikely any doses will be available to companies like Boots or Bupa,” a Department of Health spokesman said. “There is no law stopping a pharmaceutical company from selling to a company, but the Government has already purchased 335m doses and it would be surprising if there would be anything left over for private companies.”

US giant Pfizer, which could launch its vaccine within the next couple of months, also downplayed the likelihood of private sector firms buying up stock.

“During the initial pandemic stage, our contracts are with the governments and we’ll be providing doses according to their preferred channel and designated vaccination locations,” a Pfizer spokesman said.

However, if vaccinations were to become an annual event and manufacturing ramps up, workplace vaccination could certainly become commonplace.

It would more than likely mirror the way the flu jab is administered. Although a spokesman for the CIPD did urge caution, saying: “It’s very hard to say at the moment what this could look like with any potential Covid-19 vaccine as there’s still very little information on timescales, efficacy and availability.”