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Boris Johnson said Covid booster jabs are “absolutely crucial” in protecting the UK as a new wave of Covid sweeps through Europe.
The prime minster urged people to get vaccinated to avoid new restrictions in the lead up to Christmas, while “storm clouds are gathering over parts of the continent”.
Speaking at a press conference from Downing Street, he said: “We don’t yet know the extent to which this new wave will wash up on our shores but history shows that we cannot afford to be complacent.
“If we want to control the epidemic here in the UK and if we want to avoid new restrictions on our daily lives, we must all get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible.”
Mr Johnson opened his speech by paying tribute to those affected by the terrorist attack at Liverpool Women’s Hospital and said it is a “stark reminder of the need for us all to remain utterly vigilant.”
He also reiterated an announcement by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that second vaccine doses will be made available to 16 and 17-year-olds and that booster jabs will be extended to the over-40s.
When asked if he could categorically rule our a Christmas lockdown, he said: “We don’t see anything in the current data that leads us to think that we need to go to plan B that is several steps short of a lockdown.
“But clearly we cannot rule anything out and the most important thing people can do to prevent further restrictions from being taken is to get the boosters.”
Over time, the protection from two Covid jabs starts to wane but having a third jab boosts protection back up to 90% according to scientists.
“Those countries with lower vaccination rates have tended to see bigger surges in infection and been forced to respond with harsher measures while those countries with higher vaccination rates have so far fared better,” Mr Johnson added.
The booster programme will be extended to include people aged between 40 to 49, who are eligible for a third jab six months after receiving their second dose.
The JCVI said people should be offered the Pfizer or Moderna jab as a booster, irrespective of which vaccine they had initially.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, made the announcement at a news briefing on Monday morning.
A second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab should be given to 16 to 17-year-olds at least 12 weeks after the first, with the longer timescale believed to reduce the very small risk of a severe adverse reaction.
The vaccine committee said that the broadening of the booster campaign and the offer of a second jab to 16 and 17-year-olds will “help extend our protection into 2022”.
Health chiefs are trying to increase up take-up to avoid a coronavirus crisis this winter which could overwhelm the NHS.
Research so far has shown that a Pfizer booster after two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine has an effectiveness of 93 per cent against symptomatic Covid-19.
For individuals who had Pfizer for the first and second dose and then a Pfizer booster it is 94 per cent.
The risk of hospitalisation or death from Covid-19 after a booster is expected to be even smaller.
On Monday, Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden urged people to get their booster jabs “when the call comes” if they wanted to avoid curbs over the Christmas period.
He said: “If you get the booster when the call comes that is the biggest wall of defence that we have against Covid.
“I am confident that if we stick the course, people take the boosters when they are asked to do so, that vaccine wall will hold up and we will be able to have a decent Christmas this year.”
Before the announcement on Monday, people aged 50 and over, those living and working in care homes, frontline health and social care works and younger people at risk have been eligible for a booster jab six months after their second dose.
The booster programme has formed part of the Government’s ‘Plan A’ for managing Covid-19 over the autumn and winter period, in a bid to reduce case numbers without resorting to stricter coronavirus measures.
Some 12.6 million people have had a third Covid-19 jab so far, according to official figures.