The government has purchased a further 60 million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, as part of plans to deliver a Covid-19 booster programme for the end of the year, as officials said the UK was nearing the "bottom level" of coronavirus infections.
Despite the “relative calm” of the current situation, people are to be revaccinated “based on clinical need” in a bid to further raise their immunity levels ahead of the winter months, when cases and transmission are expected to rise again.
The booster programme is also being implemented to provide protection against new and emerging coronavirus variants, some of which are capable of blunting the effectiveness of the current generation of vaccines.
“Our vaccination programme is bringing back our freedom, but the biggest risk to that progress is the risk posed by a new variant,” health secretary Matt Hancock said on Wednesday.
The announcement came as Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said the UK was nearing the “bottom level” of its epidemic.
The latest figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show a total of 2,166 positive tests were recorded in the past 24 hours – down 9.6 per cent from a week ago. A further 29 fatalities were reported, bringing Britain’s death toll from Covid-19 to 127,480.
“We are really in very low levels that are comparable to where we were in September last year,” said Prof Van-Tam on Wednesday. “We are running as a typical seven-day average at just over 2,000 people testing positive per day.
“My sense is that probably we are at or close to the bottom at the moment in terms of this level of disease in the UK.”
He added that the progress of Britain's vaccine rollout should limit the damage of the third wave of infections that has been predicted by government modellers.
"I am personally hopeful that if the vaccine programme continues at pace, and continues to be as successful as it's been, the third wave, so to speak, might just be a third upsurge and much less significant, because of the delinking of cases to hospitalisations and deaths," he said.
It’s hoped the future rise in cases and hospitalisations will be eased as a result of the UK’s booster programme, which is to be supplemented by the addition of the 60 million Pfizer doses. These will be used alongside other approved Covid vaccines.
“We're working on our plans for booster shots, which are the best way to keep us safe and free while we get this disease under control across the whole world,” Mr Hancock added.
Further details on the booster programme will be published in due course, the government said.
The final policy is to be informed by advice from the joint committee on vaccination and immunisation (JCVI) and the results of clinical trials studying whether different vaccine doses can be “mixed and matched”.
Known as a heterologous prime-boost, this type of immunisation can only be administered with licensed jabs and, in the context of the UK, would see people inoculated with a third dose which is different to the first two jabs they received.
If the ongoing study run by scientists at Oxford University confirms the safety and effectiveness of “mixing and matching”, this policy will also offer the UK a degree of flexibility in the face of possible future supply constraints.
Research is also ongoing to establish whether the Covid-19 jabs can be co-administered alongside the flu vaccine, which is rolled out to millions of people each winter.
Overall, the UK has now secured 517 million vaccine doses, provided by eight different manufacturers.
The latest data show that a total of 47,540,984 million shots were administered between 8 December and 27 April. Just over a quarter of all adults in Britain have received both doses.
Vaccines manufactured by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna are already in use within the UK, while Britain’s medicines regulator is currently assessing the Johnson & Johnson and Novavax jabs for approval.
The impact of the vaccines was laid bare in new research published by Public Health England earlier on Wednesday, which showed that a single dose can cut transmission of the virus by up to half.
According to the PHE study, people who became infected with coronavirus three weeks after receiving one dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine were between 38 per cent to 49 per cent less likely to pass it on to household contacts, compared to those who were unvaccinated.
“We know that indoor settings have the highest risk of transmission so these results are really encouraging in terms of the impact of the vaccine on reducing transmission,” said Mr Hancock.
“What it means is the evidence is stacking up that the vaccine protects you, your loved ones and it is the way out of this pandemic.”
Separate research from the Office for National Statistics suggests that more than half of all adults in the UK now have antibodies against Covid-19.
Despite his optimism, Prof Van-Tam warned that there are still “some twists and turns ahead,” explaining that the lifting of restrictions on 17 May and then 21 June will place “bad pressures” on the reproduction (R) rate, and acknowledged the continuing risk posed by the coronavirus variants.
"But I think it is inconceivable to think we will go from a period of relative calm, which is where we are now, with no further bumps in the road in terms of upswings in activity between now and this time next year," he said.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies