All adults will be offered a COVID-19 booster vaccine as the government backed a far reaching expansion of the jabs programme to deal with the potential impact of the Omicron variant.
On Monday afternoon, the UK’s vaccine advisory body – the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation (JCVI) – recommended:
• Booster jabs for everybody over the age of 18
• Shortening the gap between a second jab and a booster from six months to three months
• Giving a second jab to children aged between 12 and 15 – again after no less than three months
• Severely immunosuppressed people given access to another booster – meaning for some, a fourth dose this winter
• Boosters consisting of either a Pfizer vaccine or a half dose of the Moderna jab
Delivering a statement in the Commons shortly afterwards, Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that the government will be taking on board all of the recommendations “in full”.
The move, which will see millions more people in the UK become eligible for a third booster dose, has come in the wake of growing international concern about the new Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Mr Javid told MPs: “In this race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs.”
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said “scientists around the world” agree that the Omicron variant is “of increased concern”, but stressed that there remains a “high degree of current uncertainty” about it.
Speaking at a televised data briefing, Prof Van-Tam said: “I want to be clear that this is not all doom and gloom at this stage and I do not want people to panic at this stage.
“If vaccine effectiveness is reduced as seems pretty likely to some extent, the biggest effects are likely to be in preventing infections and hopefully there will be smaller effects on preventing severe disease.
“But that is something that is there for scientists to work out in the next few weeks.”
He added that the booster campaign “has never been more vital than at this point in time”.
“To me – and as you know, I love football – we started with 11 players in the team with the Wuhan vaccine and you could say that we kind of picked up a couple of injuries when Alpha came along and then Delta came along, those variants that are different from the Wuhan original strain,” Prof Van-Tam said.
“And we’ve had to use our subs off the bench to keep us in the game. But we are well in the game, and you can see that with the current epidemiology in relation to Delta, that the vaccines are holding up very well and largely keeping us out of trouble.
“Now Omicron is like now picking up a couple of yellow cards to key players on top. We may be okay, but we are kind of starting to feel at risk that we might go down to 10 players.
“And if that happens, or if it is a risk that that is going to happen, then we need everyone on the pitch to up their game in the meantime. And that is really upping their game in terms of boosters and in terms of antibody responses.
“We are not going to wait for the red card to happen, we are going to act decisively now and we are asking everyone to up their game.
“We are asking everyone to play their part in the urgency now of the booster programme – coming forward the moment you are called by the NHS.”
Speaking at the data briefing, Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), said a “thorough review” and monitoring had found it was safe for those aged 12 to 15 to have a second vaccine dose as there are “no new safety issues”.
“Our message to people aged 12-15 is that it is safe to have a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine and if you’re called to receive your second dose, please go and take that offer. It will ensure that you’re further protected from COVID-19,” Dr Raine said.
She added that it was “very likely” that an assessment of whether to approve the Pfizer jab for children as young as five would be concluded before Christmas.
Meanwhile, Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI, said: “Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant.”
“This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months,” he added.
The move has come in the wake of growing international concern about the new Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Six cases of Omicron have been found in Scotland and five have been detected in England.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) identified two further cases of the Omicron variant in England on Monday, in Camden and Wandsworth in London.
The agency said both cases have travel links to South Africa.
Delivering a statement on the Omicron variant to the Commons, Mr Javid said: “We expect cases to rise over the coming days.”
The UK called an “urgent” meeting of G7 health ministers today to discuss the variant, and a number of countries have reimposed travel restrictions.
In a statement released after the meeting, the G7 health ministers indicated that they will continue to work closely together in the coming weeks to share information and monitor Omicron and agreed to meet again in December.
JCVI deputy chairman Professor Anthony Harnden had previously said extending the age range for boosters and reducing the gap between second and third doses was “a sensible strategy”.
The expansion of the vaccination programme is just one part of a host of new measures aimed at preventing the spread of the B.1.1.529.
Not much is known about the new strain, first detected by researchers in southern Africa, but there are fears it could be more contagious and more resistant to vaccines.
It is hoped measures – including the reintroduction of mask-wearing in some settings in the UK – could buy more time for scientists to gain a greater understanding of the virus.
This measure will be brought back on Tuesday, while PCR tests will be reintroduced for travellers returning to the UK.
Close contacts of anyone who tests positive for the new strain have also been ordered to isolate for 10 days.
“If it emerges that this variant is no more dangerous than the Delta variant, then we won’t keep measures in place for a day longer than necessary,” the health secretary told MPs.
But also speaking in the Commons on Monday, shadow health minister Dr Rosena Allin-Khan called for pre-departure testing to also be implemented.