Covid booster jabs open to over-30s from Monday as omicron wave looms

Javid says booster programme ‘accelerating’ as study finds omicron hospitalisation wave could dwarf last winter’s

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Sunday 12 December 2021 00:13
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<p>Omicron is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK by the end of December </p>

Omicron is expected to become the dominant variant in the UK by the end of December

People aged 30 and over will be able to book a Covid-19 booster jab from Monday as the government and NHS scramble to respond to the new omicron variant.

The added urgency to the booster programme comes as a new study from scientists advising the UK government has warned that the variant could cause a wave of infections and hospitalisations bigger than last winter’s.

Although the scientists say there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about omicron, the worst-case scenario outlined in their paper warns of between 25,000 and 75,000 deaths before April if new restrictions are not introduced.

Concerns were voiced this week that the booster rollout was going too slowly, after the number of jabs administered last weekend actually fell compared to the weekend before.

But a source at the Department of Health and Social Care said the programme was being speeded up, while health secretary Sajid Javid said the vaccine programme was “accelerating rapidly”.

As of Saturday night, anyone over 30 who had their second vaccine dose more than two months ago could make an online booking for a booster, despite the NHS website continuing to say only over-40s were eligible.

An NHS spokesperson said its IT system had “started a little earlier in the day to get ready” for Monday’s launch.

Omicron is expected to become the dominant variant in England by the end of December, and scientists are desperately trying to establish whether it is more infectious – and if so, by how much – than the delta variant currently in circulation; and separately, whether it can outwit vaccines and antibodies.

At a briefing of journalists on Saturday, Dr Nick Davies, who co-led the latest study, told reporters that there was “pretty good evidence of exponential growth” of omicron in the data the scientists had analysed.

He said the latest numbers had shown “a very fast rate of increase” and had painted a picture that was “quite concerning”.

Dr Rosanna Barnard, from the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), who also co-led the work, said: “In our most optimistic scenario, the impact of omicron in the early part of 2022 would be reduced with mild control measures such as working from home.

“However, our most pessimistic scenario suggests that we may have to endure more stringent restrictions to ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed. Mask-wearing, social distancing and booster jabs are vital, but may not be enough.”

She added: “Nobody wants to endure another lockdown, but last-resort measures may be required to protect health services if omicron has a significant level of immune escape or otherwise increased transmissibility compared to delta. It is crucial for decision makers to consider the wider societal impact of these measures, not just the epidemiology.”

New data from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that booster shots give good protection against the new variant, a finding corroborated by the LSHTM’s study.

The changes to vaccine-booking eligibility mean that of 7.5 million people aged 30 to 39, 3.5 million will be eligible from Monday.

Dr Emily Lawson, head of the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme, said: “Following the updated guidance from the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation), which shortened the interval between second and booster doses, NHS staff are redoubling their efforts to protect the public from the virus.” But she said the health service needed volunteers to help deliver the rollout, and urged more people to come forward.

The health and social care secretary, Sajid Javid, said: “The Covid-19 booster programme is accelerating rapidly and more than 22 million people in the UK have already received their top-up, securing vital protection ahead of Christmas.

“This is our national mission – the most recent data shows boosters are the essential defence against omicron, and we are doing everything in our power to get jabs into arms as quickly as possible.

“We are now expanding the offer to over-30s – so please come forward as quickly as possible to get boosted and help our country get ahead in this race with the variant.”

The scientists from the LSHTM who carried out the latest study are participants in the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) or the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage). They used experimental data to look at how omicron may transmit as the country heads into 2022.

The team of researchers estimated that omicron was evading vaccines “by a substantial degree”, and was likely to be anywhere between 10 per cent less transmissible and up to 35 per cent more transmissible than than the currently prevalent delta variant.

The scientists said they had taken into account the additional protection afforded by booster doses, but that the picture could be improved if “a very high uptake of booster vaccines is achieved”.

The researchers’ findings agree with other studies showing that boosters, and the scale and speed of the booster programme, will have a “large impact” on the outcome.

Reacting to the study’s findings, Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Daisy Cooper said the new modelling called on the government to take urgent action to prevent health services from being overwhelmed.

“With both Ambulance and A&E services already stretched to breaking point, we cannot afford another huge surge in hospitalisations,” she said.

“The Government must act quickly and set out its emergency plans to parliament in the next 72 hours. It must urgently ramp up the booster programme, give frontline NHS staff the additional resources they need, guarantee financial protections for small businesses, particularly in hospitality, and ensure that everyone who needs it can access mental health support during these difficult times.”

Labour overnight urged ministers to set up pop-up vaccination centres in supermarkets and shopping centres so that people could get jabbed while doing their Christmas shopping.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called for retired doctors to be mobilised with a target of delivering 500,000 boosters a day, and for the immediate opening up of booster appointments to adults across all age groups.

“Our best defence against omicron is urgently ramping up the booster programme, but the government is not currently on track to get everyone boosted by the end of January,” Mr Streeting said, adding: “We need to pull out all the stops on this.”

A government spokesperson said ministers “continue to look closely at all of the emerging data”.

“We’ve been clear throughout that vital vaccines and boosters are our best line of defence against this virus, and that is why we are urging people to come forward as quickly as possible as they become eligible,” the spokesperson said.

“Plan B remains a proportionate response based upon what we know, so we encourage everyone to follow the rules by wearing a face-covering, working from home if you can, testing regularly and coming forward for your booster when called.”

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the LHSTM study was “well-designed and clearly presented”, but should be treated with caution because of the preliminary nature of the data.

“I suspect these models overstate the risk of hospitalisation and deaths, and the ‘worst case’ scenarios are unlikely to be seen,” he said. “As better data becomes available in coming weeks we can expect these models to be refined.”

Meanwhile, Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, said that “as things stand right now, the numbers highlighted by the LSHTM modelling group are alarming”.

Dr Head said it had been a mistake to lift all Covid restrictions before the vaccine rollout had been completed. He also blamed a global failure not to share enough vaccines with poorer countries.

“We don’t know how often this coronavirus can change its clothes and emerge with a new look. Vaccinating the world is a huge demand, and we’ve seen that the world is not up to the task. That is a mistake – increasing equity in the global rollout is in everybody’s interests,” he said.

“The coronavirus has not finished with us. A tactic of ‘turning the lights off and pretending we are not in’ is a failed policy.”

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