It is “critical” that the Covid booster programme is accelerated, a leading member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) has said.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, said there is a need to speed up boosters and the vaccination of teenagers, who he suggested should be given two doses of a jab to block infection and transmission.
It came as NHS England chief executive Amanda Pritchard said that, to “make the most of half-term”, the national booking service will be open for 12 to 15-year-olds to book their jabs at existing vaccination centres.
Covid-19 cases in the UK are at their highest level for almost three months, with the seven-day average standing at 44,145 cases per day.
Hospital admissions and deaths are also slowly creeping up, though vaccines are still working well overall to prevent severe disease.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Ferguson, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said the UK had higher Covid cases than other countries for a number of reasons.
“First of all, we have lower functional immunity in our population than most other Western European countries and that’s for two reasons,” he said.
“Partly, we were very successful in getting vaccination rolled out early and we know that gradually immunity wanes over time after you’ve had that second dose, so how early we were means we are a bit more vulnerable.
“Second, we relied more on the AstraZeneca vaccine and, while that protects very well against very severe outcomes of Covid, it protects slightly less well than Pfizer against infection and transmission, particularly in the face of the Delta variant.
“And finally, we just sit behind a few other countries, not dramatically, but we’re no longer in the top rank of European countries in terms of overall vaccination coverage, particularly vaccinating teenagers.
“Overall coverage rates here are considerably lower, for instance, than in Spain, Portugal and Denmark.”
Just over 67% of the UK population have received two doses of vaccine according to Government figures, compared with at least 75% in Denmark, 79% in Spain and 86% in Portugal.
The weekly rate of new reported cases of Covid-19 in the UK is one of the highest in the world, having jumped from 367 cases per 100,000 people at the start of October to its current level of 463 per 100,000.
By contrast, rates have dropped to very low levels in neighbouring countries such as Spain (24 per 100,000), France (48) and Germany (80).
Asked if Covid booster jabs are the answer to waning immunity, Prof Ferguson: “Absolutely, and there’s data coming through now, which is not completely clear cut, but good data coming through from Israel, which shows that, if you’ve had the third booster dose of the vaccine, then you get very high loads, better than even you had after the second dose.
“And so I do think it’s critical we accelerate the booster programme.
“The other thing is infection rates are highest in teenagers at the moment and most other European countries are ahead of us in vaccinating teenagers and giving them two doses, not just one dose.
“Two doses really are needed to block infection and prevent transmission, so I think that’s the other problem, keep pushing on, getting coverage rates up higher in the teenagers who are driving a lot of this infection.”
The Sage member said the doubling time for hospital admissions is currently about five weeks, “so I think we need (to be) on the case, and we do need to prioritise the (booster) vaccination programme but we’re not in the same position as last year.”
He added: “I don’t think it’s a reason to panic right now but I would certainly like to see vaccination booster doses accelerated, vaccination for teenagers accelerated.”
Prof Ferguson was also asked whether future restrictions and lockdowns may be needed.
He said the Government “was very clear that it wanted to move away from social distancing measures, but it’s notable, clearly, that most Western European countries have kept in place more control measures, vaccine mandates, mask-wearing mandates, and tend to have lower case numbers and certainly not case numbers which are going up as fast as we’ve got. But at the end of the day this is a policy decision for Government to make.”
The expert said “people need to be aware that we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic”, amid suggestions that people have just gone back to normal.
“Nobody likes having their freedoms curtailed by measures but it’s prudent to be cautious in everyday interactions – certainly wearing masks helps that, it reminds people that we’re not completely out of the woods yet,” he said.
Asked if the country should be worrying about another lockdown, Prof Ferguson said it was “very unlikely we’ll see anything like the levels of deaths we saw last year”.
He added: “Coming into the winter, there may be a Plan B which needs to be implemented, which involves some rolling back of measures, but I doubt that we’ll ever get close to lockdown we were in in January of this year.”
Elsewhere, Sir David King, who was the Government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said the pace of the Covid booster rollout was going “extremely slowly”.
According to the Government coronavirus dashboard, 2.3 million people in England aged 80 and over had received both doses of vaccine as of April 17 – so were eligible for a booster dose as of October 17.
NHS England figures show that 1.3 million people in England in this age range (around half) had received a booster dose as of October 17.
In addition, 31% of eligible 75 to 79-year-olds and 15% of 70 to 74-year-olds have had a booster so far.
According to calculations from the actuary John Roberts, from the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, which has been tracking the vaccine rollout, there are 8.5 million people in England now eligible for a booster if they want one.
He said there are 4.8 million who had their second dose at least six months ago, but who have not yet received a booster.
NHS England said 7.9 million people in England are eligible for a booster, of whom 5.5 million have received invitations.
Some 1.9 million people will be invited this week as they have become eligible over the last few days, it added.
This leaves around 500,000, which includes care home residents who are not invited through the national booking system.
An NHS England spokesman said: “Almost four million people have already received their booster in just four weeks since the rollout began – more than double the rate of the initial rollout in December.
“While the NHS can only invite people to get their booster six months on from their second jab, millions of people are getting invited within days of becoming eligible and as there is plenty of capacity available. The NHS message remains that when you are invited, you should book in immediately.”
Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, said: “We know that many people with blood cancer have still not been invited for the third dose, despite the deadline for the NHS offering the third dose to the immunocompromised passing last week.
“Given that people with blood cancer are more vulnerable to Covid and are less likely to be protected by the vaccines, this has caused huge anxiety and may well result in unnecessary deaths.”