By Daniel Holland LDRS

The people of the North East have been urged to keep doing their bit to bring down Covid infection rates, with local leaders warning that rollout of the newly approved vaccine “will not happen overnight”.

Vaccination of high-risk groups could begin as soon as next week, after the UK approved the Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for use.

The Newcastle Hospitals Trust has been tasked with coordinating a vaccine hub for the North East, though no details have been announced yet of exactly how, when and where the vaccine will be administered in our region.

It has been previously confirmed that the NHS was considering using the Nightingale hospital site in Washington could be used as a mass vaccination centre.

Care home residents and staff are expected to be the first people to receive the vaccine, which requires two doses, followed by people aged over 80 and frontline healthcare workers.

In a statement on Wednesday afternoon, North East council leaders urged people not to get carried away despite the hugely positive news on a vaccine – urging the public to ensure that efforts to reduce infection spread are not “thrown away”.

According to figures from Newcastle City Council, the rate of infection across Newcastle, Gateshead, Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Sunderland, and County Durham on the day that lockdown was lifted is now 182 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people per week.

That figure compares to 279 a week ago on November 25, and 398 on November 18.

Despite the falling case numbers, the North East is in the highest Tier 3 category of local Covid restrictions.

The seven councils said: “Today’s news that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) have approved the first COVID vaccine is extremely positive and is a testament to a combined scientific effort at a global scale.

“Rolling out this vaccine is going to be a mammoth operational challenge with many complexities, but the local authorities stand ready to support the NHS in whatever way we can.

“Across the North East we will focus on ensuring that those high-risk groups are prioritised and are working with Newcastle Hospitals Trust, who are acting on behalf of all NHS partners, to coordinate the vaccine rollout over the coming months and in the longer term.

“Population wide vaccination will not happen overnight, so we need to be patient and continue to follow all the existing guidance around social distancing, hand washing, face coverings and responding appropriately if we think we have symptoms.

“We must all continue to do our bit and keep working together to reduce the transmission of the virus so all our hard work to date in reducing cases numbers is not thrown away.”

NHS chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said that hospitals “will shortly kick off the first phase of the largest scale vaccination campaign in our country’s history”.

Because the Pfizer vaccine needs to be stored at -80C temperatures and moved carefully, it will initially be delivered from “Hospital Hubs”, before other local vaccination services are expanded.

While details of the North East’s hub are not yet confirmed, it is known that the process is being led by the Newcastle Hospitals Trust.

In a report last week, trust chief executive Dame Jackie Daniel said: “In October, Newcastle Hospitals was appointed as the lead provider for the development and provision of a Covid-19 Vaccine Hub for the North East and North Cumbria.

“The vaccine programme is the next major step in the national and regional response to the virus, and the principal objective of the Vaccine Hub is to develop systems and processes to support the mass vaccination of the total area population. With the first vaccines reporting the results of their clinical trials in mid-November, we have taken the necessary early steps for operational planning to allow us to mobilise quickly once the vaccine(s) are available.

“A multi-professional and multi-agency programme team has been brought together to plan how a vaccination programme will work for the region, and is doing so working closely with partners from across the ICS (Integrated Care System), in particular colleagues in primary care.”