At the start of 2021, the UK coronavirus vaccine rollout was one of the fastest in the world.

While the European Union launched legal action over supply shortfalls and several member states battled widespread vaccine hesitancy, by 20 March, Britain was handing out more than 800,000 doses a day.

But now it has fallen to 13th in the rankings of percentage of population vaccinated, with just 63.8% double jabbed.

And EU countries such as Malta, Portugal, Spain, Ireland, and Belgium have now overtaken, as their rollouts gain momentum and the UK loses pace.

Here Sky News looks at why the UK COVID vaccine rollout appears to have slowed down.

Children not included in UK count so far

The government’s chief medical officers only agreed to start offering the vaccine to all 12 to 15-year-olds on 13 September.

This means that until that rollout begins, a significant part of the population will not appear in vaccination statistics, putting the UK behind other countries who have been immunising schoolchildren such as Portugal and Ireland.

Dr Al Edwards, of the University of Reading’s school of pharmacy, described the concept of the UK’s rollout being ‘behind’ as “artificial”.

“In the UK we started vaccinating the really vulnerable groups first and that has had a really significant effect,” he told Sky News.

“The benefit of vaccination is different for different age groups,” he said.

“So any country that can vaccinate their most vulnerable 30% will have huge benefits because that will help prevent serious disease and death.

“When you get to between 30 and 60% those benefits become marginal.

“And then when you get to around 80%, you are really just arguing about the benefits, because they have significantly diminished.”

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Professor Andrew Preston, of the University of Bath’s department of biology and biochemistry, added that avoiding lockdowns and being able to live with the virus matters more than the numbers.

“The end game of the vaccine programme was never to vaccinate 100% of the population, it was to overcome the pandemic”, he told Sky News.

“Vaccinating children will boost the numbers, but it all depends on whether we can move back to a pre-COVID existence or not – whether that’s by vaccinating 20%, 40% or 60% of the population.

“We need to move away from just looking at the percentage vaccinated and instead at what we are actually achieving in terms of this moving towards being an endemic virus in future years.”

Tough restrictions on unvaccinated in Europe and elsewhere

Malta has vaccinated more of its population than any other country.

One of the reasons for this is its tough restrictions on those who are unvaccinated.

Since the beginning of July, people can only remove their face masks in public places if they’ve been double jabbed.

This can be proven by an official Maltese vaccine certificate or the EU ‘digital pass’.

Although France’s vaccine programme is still behind the UK’s, it has caught up significantly since the introduction of its ‘health pass’ in late July.

Its daily vaccination rate almost doubled in the weeks following, with nearly eight million getting their first dose in the first six weeks.

People now have to show a health pass to go to cafes, bars, restaurants, museums and other indoor spaces.

Similar digital passes have been introduced across Europe and beyond and have helped boost vaccination rates.

In the UK however, the government has rejected the idea of vaccine passports apart from in nightclubs and says it will only bring them in more widely if hospitalisations rise this winter.

“Other countries seem quite happy to use a more authoritarian system without batting an eyelid,” Professor Preston said.

“Italy, for example, have their green pass and it seems to be working, but here we have a very vocal minority defending those civil liberties.”

UK vaccine messaging is ‘wearing off’

Vaccine uptake in the UK is still lowest in the under-30s.

Only 48.9% of 18 to 24-year-olds and 51.8% of 25 to 29-year-olds had received two doses in England by 12 September.

Although they were last to be offered a jab, the government promised to have invited everyone over 18 to get their first by mid-July and shortened the gap between first and second from 12 to eight weeks.

Professor Sharifah Sekalala, an expert in public policy and global health at the University of Warwick, says the overall vaccine rollout has suffered from a lack of engagement with young people.

“Because of the way we banded ages at the beginning, and we reopened before they were vaccinated, people of university age feel as though their vaccinations are not as important as others,” she told Sky News.

“There has been very little consultation with them. They don’t see their GPs as much as the rest of the population, so very little community work has been done and we need to do more to address that,” she said.

Professor Sekalala also claims public messaging on the vaccine has slowed down in general, particularly with regards to underprivileged groups.

“If we’re comparing ourselves to Europe, we have massive social inequalities already, so more community work on vaccines is required,” she said.

“But it’s wearing off – it was very strong in the beginning – but now some people just think it’s all done because we’re not talking about it anymore.”