Health secretary Thérèse Coffey has rejected advice from officials to procure additional doses of monkeypox vaccine, stoking concern that the UK is ill-prepared for a resurgence of the disease.
Officials at the UK Health Security Agency, the body responsible for infectious disease protection, had recommended that extra vaccines be secured to protect against monkeypox in the longer term.
However, Coffey decided not to purchase a recommended 70,000 extra doses on September 21 owing to concerns that it did not represent value for money, leaving UKHSA officials “in shock”, according to people familiar with the matter.
Until May, monkeypox was endemic in sub-Saharan Africa, with sparse and self-contained outbreaks recorded in the global north. But contagion surged this year, with more than 67,000 cases reported globally.
People familiar with matter said the decision not to invest in further supplies of the vaccine exposed the UK to the risk of further contagion in the future. While case numbers in the UK and worldwide are waning, the disease continues to spread, partly aided by cross-border travel.
The World Health Organization has classified the global monkeypox outbreak as a “public health emergency of international concern”, putting it on par with diseases such as Covid-19, Ebola and polio.
Common symptoms include rashes and blisters, with infection being passed on mainly through close contact. The vast majority of cases have been recorded in men who have sex with men.
The UK has grappled with shortages of vaccine since the surge in cases this summer, the Financial Times has reported, with the UKHSA coming under criticism for underestimating the number of those eligible for inoculation.
A government spokesperson said the UK had enough doses to offer the 110,000 people in the UK who are eligible for two doses of the shot, known as Imvanex and made by Denmark’s Bavarian Nordic. According to the government, people at higher risk of contracting the virus are eligible for the recommended two shots of the vaccine.
In August, LGBT+ groups from five political parties warned Coffey’s predecessor, Steve Barclay, that a failure to procure enough doses of the vaccine risked making the virus endemic in the UK.
The UKHSA directed questions to the government, which said it had “moved early to secure 150,000 vaccines amid global shortages and rapidly deploying jabs to those most at risk”.
“We are not complacent and we continue to encourage people to remain vigilant and take up the offer of a vaccine if offered. We continue to monitor the situation and decisions about future supply will be made and communicated in the usual way,” it added.
The health secretary has already aggravated some health staff since assuming her post three weeks ago. Last month, she rankled employees by telling them to “be positive” and avoid “jargon” and Oxford commas in their correspondence, the FT reported.