Vaccines watchdog advises speeding up of booster vaccination scheme to tackle new coronavirus variant
The UK’s minimum gap for Covid booster jabs will be halved from six months to three , after the government accepted advice from its vaccines watchdog to speed up the programme to limit the spread of the Omicron variant.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, confirmed that all adults would be offered the jab, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) announced that the waiting time was being cut for all adults, with priority for booking to be decided by the NHS.
The watchdog said adults aged 18 to 39 should be offered booster jabs and recommended cutting the gap between second and third doses from at least six months to at least three months.
Speaking in the Commons soon afterwards, Javid said the rollout would be staggered by age group with older people invited for boosters first.
The JCVI advised that severely immunocompromised people would be eligible for boosters three months after their primary course of three vaccinations. The committee also said 12- to 15-year-olds will be able to get their second Covid jabs for the first time.
“I have accepted this advice in full,” Javid told MPs, also outlining previously announced measures to try to curb the spread of Omicron, including travel restrictions, mandatory self-isolation for close contacts of people who test positive for the variant, and mandatory masks on public transport and in shops in England.
The number of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the UK had reached 11, he said, with two more detected in England.
“Our experience of fighting this virus has shown us that it’s best to act decisively and swiftly when we see a potential threat, which is why we’re building our defences and putting these measures in place without delay,” Javid said.
Saying the new rules would be reviewed after three week, Javid said that if it turned out Omicron was no more more dangerous than the currently dominant Delta variant, “then we will not keep measures in place a day longer than necessary”.
The extension of the booster programme to a further 13 million adults under 40 means that in total 53 million people in the UK will eventually become eligible.
All over-50s and clinically vulnerable people – 32 million Britons in total – have been eligible for boosters since September. On 15 November, this was extended to those aged 40 to 49 – an extra 8 million people.
Explaining the plans at a press conference, Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said: “We need everyone on the pitch to up their game and play their part to come forward for boosters. It has never been more vital than at this point.”
He said the NHS would have to decide the timings of opening up bookings to younger people “in an orderly way” that gets the balance right between ensuring the most at risk are getting their boosters and keeping up the pace of jabs.
Van-Tam also suggested there may need to be a “true national effort” to get booster jabs done in the same way vaccinations were done in early 2021.
The NHS is administering 350,000 booster vaccines or third jabs a day, or about 2.4 million a week, official figures show. It will have to increase the daily number of jabs to 500,000 a day in order to hit 30m boosters by Christmas Day, according to Guardian analysis.
Despite the large number of adults who have been eligible for months, however, only 17 million have had their booster jab.
The NHS is expected to concentrate on getting booster jabs to older age groups rather than opening up booking for people in their teens and 20s at this stage, unless capacity is significantly expanded.
The JCVI has been reviewing the evidence for two to three weeks, and the Omicron variant had only accelerated the recommendation for boosters.
The government’s advisers believe it is better for boosters to be delivered before any wave from the Omicron variant hits the UK and based their decision on the need to boost people’s immune response.
Reacting to the announcement, Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said: “I’ve being advocating for 12- to 15-year-olds to be double-vaccinated for months. Looking at the data from the US and Israel, I just couldn’t understand why we’ve held off for so long and caused all that disruption to the education and wellbeing of our young.
“I am a bit worried about the three-month gap. We know that often the longer the gap the better, but it’s a fine judgment call in terms of how long you leave it before getting the population fully protected.”