As published by Vice:
The UK government is under fire, once again, this time over a “half hearted” effort to get supplements to people who have stayed inside due to COVID-19.
A UK government plan to deliver free vitamin D supplements to those most at risk from COVID in England is not expected to be completed until mid-February, leading to criticism that the scheme is yet another example of authorities providing a “half hearted” response to the pandemic.
In November, UK health secretary Matt Hancock announced that the government was acting to ensure people in care homes and those shielding would have a vitamin D supply “to last them through the darker winter months”, amid growing evidence that suggests high levels of vitamin D could save patients’ lives.
However, deliveries only began at the end of the week commencing the 18th of January and would be “rolled out over the next few weeks”, according to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) – meaning that many will only receive supplies of the supplement when winter is almost over.
It comes after VICE World News reported calls for the government to urgently review its vitamin D guidelines, as the recommendations are failing to protect ethnic minority communities.
Hancock has acknowledged that a number of studies “indicate vitamin D might have a positive impact in protecting against COVID” and Public Health England’s (PHE) nutrition committee said the hormone (contrary to its name, what we commonly call vitamin D is technically a hormone) “may provide some additional benefit in reducing the risk of acute respiratory infections”.
With deaths linked to coronavirus surging in January, there is bewilderment over how it has taken more than ten weeks from the plans being first reported until the rollout. Last week, peer-reviewed new research published by Scientific Reports showed a strong correlation between European countries’ proximity to the north pole and the date of their autumn COVID surge – pointing to vitamin D levels as a contributory factor.
Shadow health minister Justin Madders told VICE World News: “Once again the government has been too slow to take the action needed to protect people’s health. As they were clearly aware of the importance of getting supply out during the time when vitamin D is needed most it is perplexing why this hasn’t happened yet.
“This is even more important when people are not able to get out as much due to the current lockdown. This seems a half hearted response to an issue which deserves full attention.”
Some care homes have been taking matters into their own hands. “I’ve been buying a number of the residents supplements in the meantime. Nobody has seen or heard of anything yet,” said a senior healthcare worker at a care home in north-west England, who did not wish to be named, of the long waits for the supplements. “The government asked these people to stay indoors, that’s why they need it, regardless of COVID. It’s doing harm not to provide it to people who can’t get daylight.”
She said that the scheme had not been communicated properly. “One resident said to me, ‘Why didn’t Boris say it during one of his meetings on the telly?’ They’ve not explained the importance of it. You will have a deficiency if you miss an entire season of sun. It’s ridiculous and awful.”
Former Brexit secretary and Tory MP David Davis said he was “desperately disappointed” in the government and that it had needed to act in September if it wanted to combat winter deficiencies.
“Not only is the government action too slow, the dosage is too low,” he said. “The supplements are 400 international units (iu). If supplementation is to have any material effect, the dosage has to be sufficient to correct vitamin D deficiency. What is needed to provide adequate protection against COVID-19 is a ten times higher dose of 4,000iu per day [as advised by government public health experts].
“Because of the delay, and the low dosage, we will be coming to the end of the winter period just as those receiving the free supplements will start to see any effect whatsoever. This has yet again been a missed opportunity by the government.”
Prof Jon Rhodes, Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Liverpool, said that vitamin D levels in the UK were at their lowest from December to May due to the lack of UV sunlight. It is estimated up to 40 percent of the population were deficient all year round prior to lockdown.
“The low dose recommended by PHE will take at least four weeks to bring vitamin D concentrations up to adequate levels and will be insufficient for many,” he said. “There is considerable evidence that vitamin D deficiency impairs immune health, strengthened by the recent Edinburgh/Queen Mary London study.
“It is therefore regrettable that it is taking so long to ensure provision of supplements and avoidance of vitamin D deficiency amongst UK care-home residents who are suffering so greatly during this pandemic.”
Dr Richard Quinton, a consultant endocrinologist for Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, said that “nearly all” of the COVID patients admitted to his care from care homes or sheltered accommodation were vitamin D deficient, unless they were already prescribed it by their GP.
Coronavirus patients at Royal Victoria Infirmary and Newcastle Freeman hospitals – the only two hospitals in the UK known to act as such – are often provided with large doses of vitamin D and Quinton said an early analysis of data which suggests that the acute trust is among the top five best performing in the country regarding survival rates was robust.
People are being provided with vitamin D supplements manufactured by the Oxford Health Company after an open bidding process for the £11.3 million contract ended on the 22nd of December following its launch on the 10th of December.
More than 71,000 people have so far received free vitamin D supplements in Scotland. A similar scheme is underway in Andalusia, Spain. People in the UK are said to be uniquely deficient in the sunshine nutrient, with parts of the country at the same latitude as Alaska and eating little oily fish – a rich source of the vitamin.