Covid booster vaccine rollout: experts criticise lack of data and say ‘public is not getting the full story’

Early data on booster jabs in England suggests a regional gap is already emerging - but a lack of detail prevents proper scrutiny.

NHS England is once again failing to tell the public the full story on the Covid vaccine rollout with substandard data preventing scrutiny of the booster jab programme, the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) has said.

NationalWorld had raised the issue of a lack of detail in new data on booster doses with the RSS, which is the professional body for statisticians and data analysts.

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NHS England has been publishing daily updates on the number of third doses given out since 1 October, after the rollout began on 20 September.

But there is no detail provided beyond a cumulative count of doses given by NHS region and age, so no indication of exactly who is taking up their offer.

People aged 50 and over, health and social care workers, and clinically vulnerable groups are eligible for a booster jab – but NHS England’s figures do not provide a count of how many people fall into these groups, preventing analysis of uptake.

It is reminiscent of the early days of the rollout in 2021, when the RSS warned NHS England that its data was “not good enough”.

In January, the Office for Statistics Regulation watchdog wrote to health bodies in the UK stressing the need for more detailed data so the public could understand how the rollout was progressing.

NHS England now publishes detailed weekly breakdowns on sex, ethnicity, age and location for first and second doses, as well as data on key groups such as care home residents.

But NHS England told NationalWorld it cannot yet provide the same for third doses. It said it is working on it, but could not give a firm date for when the data will be available.

As of 13 October, 2,898,581 booster shots had been given in England, the majority to people aged 75 and over. This data has not been added to the Government’s Covid dashboard.

Professor Jennifer Rogers from the RSS said the public were once again “not being told the full story when it comes to the vaccine rollout”.

“Without knowing how many people are eligible to receive a vaccine booster dose, we simply have no way of assessing the performance of the rollout,” she said.

Booster vaccines will be vital to maintain levels of immunity and keep hospitalisations and deaths down over the winter months, she added.

“Just producing vaccine counts tells us nothing about how we are progressing,” she continued.

“We need vaccination uptake rates and we need them split by the relevant subgroups. Sadly, it seems that lessons have not been learned from the initial rollout of the vaccine with respect to data transparency.”

There is a similar lack of data elsewhere in the UK. Public Health Scotland is currently publishing the number of third doses given overall and to clinically vulnerable people – but without giving a count of the eligible population.

Public Health Wales has yet to publish any data on boosters and told NationalWorld it may start doing so in two weeks time, while Health and Social Care Northern Ireland is publishing counts of doses given by gender and age, again with no eligible population data.

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Huge variations in vaccine coverage have been a consistent theme of the vaccination rollout.

Women are more likely to be vaccinated than men, Black people and others from ethnic minorities have been much less likely to take up their invites than white people, and some regions – particularly London – have fallen behind others.

NationalWorld’s analysis of the current data suggests a regional gap is already emerging for boosters, with uptake ranging from a low of 5.3% in London to a high of 7.1% in the North East and Yorkshire.

But this analysis uses the entire 16 and over population, most of which will not be eligible for a booster dose.

Only those who had a second dose at least six months ago are eligible for a third dose.

People aged 16 and over who live with or care for a vulnerable person are also eligible.

NHS England was contacted for comment.

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