Hospitals across the UK have received their first deliveries of the coronavirus vaccine ahead of the national rollout on Tuesday.
The NHS posted footage of one consignment being unloaded in Croydon, one of 50 hubs taking part in the first wave of what was described as “the biggest immunisation programme in history”.
Batches of the vaccine were placed into freezers to keep the doses at -70C until they are ready for use.
“This is just so exciting. It’s a momentous occasion,” said Louise Coghlan, joint chief pharmacist at the Croydon University Hospital in south London.
“To know that they are here and we are much the first in the country to actually receive the vaccine, and therefore the first in the world, is just amazing. I’m so proud.”
About 800,000 doses are expected to be available within the first week, with up to 4 million doses in total by the end of this month.
The first jabs are due to be given to the over-80s attending hospital or being discharged after treatment. Hospitals will also begin inviting over 80s for vaccination, but NHS leaders have urged people to be patient, as most will have to wait until next year to get the jab.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “I don’t think people should expect anything over the next few days because the reality is, as I said, that for the vast, vast, vast majority of people this will be done in January, February, March.
“People really shouldn’t worry if they’re over 80 and they haven’t had a letter. People just need to hang fire and wait for a proactive communication.”
The UK gave emergency use approval for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this week, having already ordered 40 million doses – enough to vaccinate 20 million people.
Initial supplies were delivered from Belgium on Thursday and stored in specialist freezers at a secure location in England before being transferred to the 50 chosen hospitals.
But Professor Stephen Powis, NHS national medical director, described the process as a “marathon not a sprint”.
He 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.”
GPs and other primary care staff have also been put on standby to start delivering the jab in the week beginning 14 December. Care home residents in Scotland will also be able to receive the vaccine from the same date.
Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “This coming week will be an historic moment as we begin vaccination against Covid-19. 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.
“I urge everybody to play their part to suppress this virus and follow the local restrictions to protect the NHS while they carry out this crucial work.”