Covid vaccines: Government warned of ‘dangerous complacency’ as millions skip boosters

‘We’re currently losing the arms race against BA.5’ warns leading immunologist

Samuel Lovett
Senior News Correspondent
Monday 18 July 2022 06:02 BST
Health experts urge stay up-to-date with COVID vaccines and boosters

The government has been urged to tackle a stalling vaccine uptake as data shows millions of people aged over 50 have yet to receive Covid-19 booster jabs.

In the wake of the government’s announcement that the autumn Covid booster jab will be offered to all over-50s, scientists warned that pockets of the older population were already growing vulnerable to Covid because of incomplete vaccine protection.

The experts also criticised ministers for “mixed messages” and accused them of fuelling “dangerous complacency” among the public by insisting the pandemic is over.

Figures from the UK Health Security Agency show that 16 per cent of over-50s (3,724,722) have not yet received a first or second booster. Uptake is lower among those aged between 50 and 70, with 20 per cent of this group (3,070,359) not yet boosted, according to the data.

Those aged 50 and over have been eligible to receive a third vaccine dose since September 2021.

“It’s an enormous concern on many levels: we’re currently losing the arms race against BA.5 [the Omicron sub-variant] with crippling case numbers and hospitalisations rising, especially in the elderly,” said Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London.

“I fear that mixed and negative messaging from government and even the JCVI [the vaccine watchdog] have fed into a false and dangerous complacency: ‘It’s all over, we beat the pandemic, no worse than a cold.’ This has definitely eroded uptake and leaves us in a bad place for autumn.”

The UKHSA data shows that uptake has stalled among a number of the older-age cohorts. The percentage of 60 to 65-year-olds who have not received a first or second booster, where eligible, has remained at roughly 17 per cent since 3 April.

Similarly, the percentage of 65 to 70-year-olds who have not been boosted during this period has remained at 13 per cent.

Dr Mary Ramsay, director of clinical programmes at UKHSA, said those eligible individuals “who have not taken up the offer of the spring booster put themselves at risk of severe disease”.

She added: “We urge all those who are eligible for the spring booster to take up the offer as soon as possible. Anyone who has not yet had their first or second dose should also get up to date with their jabs to give themselves the best possible protection.”

Despite the stalled uptake of boosters, the government announced on Friday that everyone aged 50 and over would be eligible to receive a Covid-19 booster and a flu jab this autumn.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said the high transmissibility of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron sub-variants had pushed them to drop the age eligibility threshold from 65 to 50.

For people aged 75 and over, this will be their fifth Covid jab if they have already received a spring booster. For the over-50s, it will be a fourth dose.

However, scientists have expressed concern that not enough older people have come forward for their first booster.

Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at the University of Oxford, said many people heading into autumn and winter having received just two doses “would be very vulnerable indeed”.

He added: “We really need to conceptualise covid vaccines as three-dose courses. Two is not enough, especially six months after the second dose.”

Dr Steve Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said the “poor” uptake of boosters was “almost certainly a consequence of the messaging around the pandemic being over”.

“We need get the messaging right as soon as possible to avoid a potential increase in severe disease,” he added.

And Professor Irene Petersen, an epidemiologist at University College London, said some people might wrongly assume “the vaccines don’t work since we now see many with breakthrough infections”.

Although protection against symptomatic infection drops considerably 20 weeks or so after a booster jab, vaccination remains highly effective in keeping people out of hospital and reducing mortality rates.

Professor Petersen added: “I would still strongly encourage people to take up the offer of a booster.”

The Department of Health and Social Care said that not everyone above 50 would be eligible for their first booster because they might have been vaccinated only recently with a second dose.

A spokesperson added: “We are not complacent about Covid – our world-leading vaccination programme has saved countless lives and continues to do so, with 85 per cent of those aged 75 and over who were eligible at the end of May receiving their spring boosters.

“We are working hard to reach those people who are still unvaccinated against Covid, including by using walk-in and mobile vaccination clinics to increase access and convenience.”

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