Prime Minister Boris Johnson appears to have begun his Christmas celebrations early as he put his faith in a ramped-up booster programme to save the festive season for everyone.
Mr Johnson chatted with stall holders on Tuesday evening and sampled wares at a Christmas market set up in Downing Street, in a display of confidence in the government’s approach to dealing with the latest COVID threat.
Earlier he had urged people not to cancel Christmas parties or school nativity plays during a press conference, where he promised to “throw everything” at the booster vaccination campaign to tackle the spread of the Omicron variant.
The prime minister announced an extensive NHS effort, backed by the army, to offer all adults a third dose by the end of January.
Speaking at a Downing Street news briefing on Tuesday, the PM said the rollout of booster programme will go in age order, and that there will be more than 1,500 community pharmacy sites in England offering the jabs.
He said “temporary vaccine centres will be popping up like Christmas trees”, adding that some 400 military personnel and the “jabs army of volunteers” will also help with the rollout.
Asked whether parties and nativity plays should be scrapped, Mr Johnson said: “We don’t want people to cancel such events and we think that, overwhelmingly, the best thing for kids is to be at school, as I have said many times throughout this pandemic.”
The PM added that the chance of another lockdown being enforced is “extremely unlikely”, but that ministers will keep “everything under review”.
He is expected to be asked about the government’s approach again during Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons on Wednesday.
Mr Johnson’s comments come after Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that all adults will be offered a COVID-19 booster vaccine as part of a far-reaching expansion of the jabs programme to deal with the potential impact of the new Omicron variant.
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
Mr Javid said the government will be taking on board all of the recommendations “in full”.
The move will see millions more people in the UK become eligible for a third booster dose and has come in the wake of growing international concern about the new variant.
More than 20 cases of the Omicron variant have so far been identified across the UK, though experts expect this number to rise in the coming days.
Explaining the government’s plan to expand the booster coronavirus vaccine programme, the PM said: “The target that we’ve set ourselves is to offer a booster to everyone eligible by the end of January.
“As with the first jabs, we will be working through people by age group going down in five-year bands, because it is vital that the older and the more clinically vulnerable get that added protection first.
“So, even if you have had your second jab over three months ago and you are now eligible, please don’t try and book until the NHS says it is your turn.”
He continued: “I know the frustration that we all feel with this Omicron variant, the sense of exhaustion that we could be going through all this all over again.
“But today I want to stress this, today that’s the wrong thing to feel because today our position is and always will be immeasurably better than it was a year ago.
“What we’re doing is taking some proportionate precautionary measures while our scientists crack the Omicron code and while we get the added protection of those boosters into the arms of those who need them most.”
Mr Johnson also revealed he will be getting his booster jab on Thursday after 18 million Britons have already received theirs.
“It’s time for another great British vaccination effort. We’ve done it before and we’re going to do it again – and let’s not give this virus a second chance,” the PM said.
Mr Javid said people should get vaccinated to “give ourselves the best chance of a Christmas with our loved ones” and that the booster rollout is a “national mission”.
Speaking alongside the PM at the news briefing, the health secretary added: “What we’re seeing recently has brought back memories of the strain of the last winter.
“But although we can’t say with certainty what lies ahead, we have one huge advantage that we didn’t have back then: our vaccination programme, which has already done so much to keep this virus at bay.”
Mr Javid also urged the “five million people” who have not had any coronavirus vaccines to come forward and accept the offer to protect themselves.
Meanwhile, Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of NHS England, said healthcare staff are working at “breakneck speed” to expand the booster jab rollout.
The Downing Street news conference came as MPs voted by 434 votes to 23 to make mask-wearing compulsory in shops and on public transport.
MPs later approved regulations linked to self-isolation requirements by 431 votes to 36.
The division list showed 19 Conservatives rebelled by voting against the face covering regulations, excluding the two MPs who acted as tellers for the noes.
It also showed that 32 Conservative MPs voted against the self-isolation regulations, again excluding the two tellers.
Later that evening, Tory Andrew Bridgen wrote a letter to the PM’s parliamentary private secretary Sarah Dines to say it would be “inappropriate” for him to attend a planned drinks at No 10 after voting against the government’s implementation of further restrictions.