Covid: Should you get your second vaccine early and what are the benefits?

Government encouraging people to shorten interval between jabs to speed up pace of rollout ahead of unlocking on 19 July and with winter flu season on the horizon

Joe Sommerlad@JoeSommerlad
Friday 09 July 2021 14:20
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Coronavirus in numbers

What is the current advice on getting a second jab?

The British government is encouraging all adults to bring forward their appointments to receive second coronavirus jabs, amid concerns about the growing spread of the Delta variant at a time when England is on course to cast off its final social restrictions from 19 July.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has said the policy, which aims to cut the interval between doses from 12 weeks to eight, would give people “maximum protection as fast as possible”, speaking with one eye on winter flu season, looming in the not-too-distant future.

In the rush to fully-vaccinate people before the final round of restrictions is lifted, some GP-run sites and vaccination centres have been offering second injections just three weeks after first appointments, but this goes against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which insists there should be a gap of at least eight weeks between doses.

“The data suggests very strongly that the longer you leave that second dose, the better longer term protection you will have,” the government’s vaccine expert, Professor Anthony Harnden, told the BBC, describing eight weeks as “the sweet spot” for a second jab.

Those wishing to bring their second appointments forward can do so via the NHSCovid-19 app or via the health service’s online bookings page but are advised to ensure local slots are available before cancelling their existing appointment. They will need an NHS number, date of birth and booking reference to hand to proceed.

Slightly over half of the UK’s population has now been fully-vaccinated, with a little over 34m people having received both doses and another 45.5m having had their first, according to the government’s latest data.

What benefits are being made available to the fully-vaccinated?

A number of clear advantages to being double-jabbed are beginning to emerge in light of the government’s plans for reopening.

Mr Johnson said at a Downing Street press conference on Monday that it was time to “move to a different regime” for those who have had both doses of the vaccine and it was subsequently announced on Tuesday by his new health secretary, Sajid Javid, that people who have had both will no longer have to self-isolate if they come into contact with a positive Covid case as of 16 August.

Under the existing rules, if a person is alerted by the NHS app, or called by contact tracers after coming into contact with a positive case, they must isolate at home for a period of up to 10 days.

But under the new “risk-based approach”, Mr Javid told his fellow ministers in the House of Commons that instead of having to undergo quarantine, those concerned will be encouraged to take a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test “as soon as possible” to provide certainty.

He also made clear that anyone who tests positive themselves will still have to self-isolate “whether they have had the jab or not.”

“This new approach means we can manage the virus in a way that is proportionate to the pandemic while maintaining the freedoms that are so important to us all,” Mr Javid said.

His remarks were followed on Thursday by transport secretary Grant Shapps announcing that double-vaccinated Britons will also be able to forego quarantine when they return from trips to amber-listed countries as of 19 July.

Currently, all arrivals from amber countries have to self-isolate for 10 days and take two post-arrival PCR tests, regardless of their vaccination status.

The change will allow fully-vaccinated people to travel quarantine-free to most of mainland Europe, including countries such as France, Spain and Portugal, massively increasing the travel options available to the quarantine-averse, given that, at present, only 27 territories are on the UK’s green list for which there is no such requirement.

Amber arrivals will still need to take a pre-departure test three days before leaving and a PCR test on or before day two - but no longer on day eight.

The fully-vaccinated are also being prioritised by the travel industry, with Heathrow Airport setting up fast-track lanes for flyers who can prove they have had both doses.

“This pilot will allow us to show that pre-departure and arrival checks of vaccination status can be carried out safely at check in, so that fully-vaccinated passengers can avoid quarantine from 19 July,” John Holland-Kaye, the airport’s chief executive, said earlier this week.

Why are we asking this now?

Mr Johnson’s announcement on Monday that Britain is on course to complete its roadmap out of lockdown in less than two weeks’ time saw the PM draw a line under social distancing and compulsory mask-wearing, paving the way for employees to return to offices and public venues to abandon capacity limits despite rising Covid case numbers.

The PM insisted that we must “learn to live with” Covid and that it is a case of “now or never” on reopening, even though new infections are forecast to hit 50,000 a day by the time restrictions are lifted and 100,000 later this summer, according to the British Medical Association, as new variants like the Lambda strain continue to emerge.

Opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer responded by calling the move to reopen completely “reckless” while Professor Stephen Reicher, a psychologist at the University of Edinburgh and an outspoken member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), tweeted his disdain, calling the decision to prioritise the economy over public health “frightening”.

A coalition of over 122 scientists and doctors has since joined the chorus of criticism, publishing an open letter in The Lancet warning that Mr Johnson is engaged in a “dangerous and unethical experiment”, accusing his government of taking “grave risks” with citizens’ lives through “illogical” policy and creating “fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant” variants of the virus.

Mr Johnson’s plans could still change as the situation develops but, at the time of writing, he is due to make a final decision on unlocking on Monday 12 July and looks stubbornly set on his present course.

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