COVID-19: Professor Jonathan Van Tam uses ‘mum test’ to reassure Britons over vaccine safety

England’s deputy chief medical officer has said he will be encouraging his own mother to get a COVID-19 vaccine as he assured Britons that safety standards will not be compromised in the face of the public health emergency.

Professor Jonathan Van Tam, speaking at a Downing Street news conference, outlined how the regular development and approval phase for a vaccine had been accelerated due to the coronavirus crisis.

This has included overlapping the three phases of clinical trials and pharmaceutical firms beginning manufacture before final approval had been granted – leaving them open to the risk their work may have to be scrapped.

However, Prof Van Tam stressed that “standards are no lower just because this is a public health emergency”.

Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), also pledged that a COVID-19 vaccine would “only be approved once it has met robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality”.

US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and its vaccine partner BioNTech this week released initial results that suggested their jab was 90% effective at protecting people from COVID-19.

Dr Raine said the MHRA had begun their work in assessing the Pfizer vaccine but had not yet received the full clinical trial data.

“Clearly we are in a state of readiness to start our rigorous reviews of safety and effectiveness the minute that reaches us,” she added.

Asked if he would be prepared to be among the first people to be vaccinated, Prof Van Tam said: “If I could, rightly and morally, be at the very front of the queue then I would do so.

“Because I absolutely trust the judgement of the MHRA on safety and efficacy.

“But that clearly isn’t right – we have to target most highest risk individuals in society and that is how it should be.

“If I could be at the front of the queue, then I would be.

“But let me say to you this, I think the ‘mum test’ is very important here.

“My mum is 78, she’ll be 79 shortly, and I’ve already said to her ‘mum, make sure when you’re called you’re ready, be ready to take this up, this is really important for you because of your age’.”

Care homes, NHS and social care staff, and then elderly people are set to be prioritised for vaccination.

And Prof Van Tam said that people should not be able to skip the queue by paying privately for a vaccine.

“One of the things I like about the NHS is that it’s there for everybody, irrespective of their level of wealth or who they are in society,” he said.

“That’s a really important principle to me, personally.”

Prof Van Tam added that deciding such an issue would be “a ministerial decision” but added: “I am giving you my views as a clinician that I think these vaccines need to be prioritised to those who need them, not those who can afford to pay for them privately.”

He admitted that the roll-out of a coronavirus vaccine would be a “mammoth challenge” for the NHS, but said he had been reassured about questions over refrigeration capacity, transport systems and the supply of needles and syringes.

Prof Van Tam also offered to deliver vaccines himself in his evenings and weekends.

But he was unable to say whether lives would be back to normal by Easter due to the development of a vaccine.

“We don’t yet know if this vaccine is going to prevent transmission as well as preventing illness, and from that perspective it would be wrong of me to give you a sense that whoever told you that we’d be completely back to normal for Easter is right,” the deputy chief medical officer said.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said the second phase of the vaccination programme could prioritise those who might suffer lasting effects of coronavirus, or who transmit the disease.

“In phase two of the programme it’s likely that we’ll prioritise individuals who may suffer because of the need for hospitalisation because of COVID or perhaps because of long COVID,” he said.

“The reason it’s not been decided is because we need to also balance the possible prioritisation of individuals who are transmitting COVID instead.”

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