Health officials finally signed off on a mass Covid booster vaccine campaign for tens of millions of Britons today, in a race against time to avoid a winter lockdown.
The Government’s vaccine advisory panel recommended a third dose for roughly 30million people aged 50 and over who received their second injection at least six months ago.
The vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the booster programme will be the ‘final piece in the jigsaw’ in turning Covid into a virus that we learn to live with.
Members of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) approved the plans on the back of growing real-world data in Israel and elsewhere, as well as a major British study, which suggested vaccine-induced immunity wanes within months.
There had been mounting pressure for the UK to follow Israel, the US, and other nations which have been booster dosing their citizens for months.
Britons who are eligible will be given the Pfizer vaccine in the first instance, no matter which jab they were originally immunised with. When there are supply constraints, the Moderna vaccine will be offered as a booster in the form of a half dose.
Officials said there was more evidence that the mRNA vaccines were safe and effective when given as a third dose, which is why they are not recommending AstraZeneca’s.
Moderna’s is being recommended as a half dose because the lower dosage is associated with fewer side effects and still produces a strong immune response, the JCVI said.
People who are invited for their booster Covid vaccine will be able to get their flu jab at the same time, in the opposite arm.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said that as a 57-year-old healthcare worker, who will be eligible for a booster vaccine, he would be ‘content’ with getting a full Pfizer or half Moderna dose.
The announcement comes ahead of what is widely accepted will be a challenging winter for the NHS with an unusually low amount of natural immunity to flu and other respiratory viruses due to more than a year of social restrictions.
Boris Johnson is expected to lay out his ‘Covid winter plan’ later this afternoon, which will see the Government reserve the power to roll back restrictions, including full-blown lockdowns. The Government has promised this will be a ‘last resort’ but has not taken it off the table.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam pictured at a Downing Street press briefing today. The Government’s vaccine advisers have announced that they are recommending a booster vaccine programme
The above groups will be the first to receive doses of the Covid vaccine. Britain’s vaccine advisers say the ‘sweet spot’ for boosters is about six months after the second dose is administered. Booster shots are set to be rolled out in descending order from group one — elderly residents in care homes — to nine
The above slide was shown at the Downing Street press briefing. It estimates that maximum protection from a second dose of the Covid vaccine lasts for six month, based on real-world data from Israel
The above slide was shown at the Downing Street press briefing today. It shows that the effectiveness of vaccines against hospitalisation dropsslightly after more than 20 weeks in people aged 65 and over
The above slide was shown at the Downing Street press conference today. It shows that the booster shots will be rolled out to groups in the above order. Britain’s vaccination advisers said the ‘sweet spot’ for administering a booster jab was six months
Confusion over Covid vaccines for children has sparked ‘uncertainty, hesitation and debate’ among families
Confusion over whether children should receive the Covid vaccine has sparked ‘uncertainty, hesitation and debate’ among families, a JCVI boss said today.
Yesterday Britain’s chief medical officers recommended jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds, saying they would slash time off school due to the virus.
It came after the Government’s vaccine advisory committee said at the start of September that it would not recommend jabs for the age group, although they did offer a ‘marginal’ health benefit to children.
Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chairman on the Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), admitted today that the varying advice had sparked uncertainty among families.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘What we tried to do right the way through the pandemic as a committee is to be open and honest with the public and give them the best advice possible…
‘I think the public in the end will appreciate our honesty and I think they will also appreciate the CMOs’ perspective, and the Government offering them choice.
‘I agree it will cause uncertainty, hesitation and debate within families, but sometimes life isn’t black and white, and this is one of those situations.’
He added that parents and children need to be ‘properly informed’ and their choices on whether or not to have the vaccine should be ‘respected’.
Other experts have warned the ‘mixed messaging’ around jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds had damaged uptake.
Professor Devi Sridhar, the personal chair in global public health at Edinburgh University, said ‘mixed messaging hasn’t helped’.
She told Good Morning Britain: ‘I personally think part of it is because they were so late with a decision — we have just had the same evidence that other countries have had since May and June, and those countries ran ahead because they knew the school year was coming and started vaccinating their children.
‘There hasn’t really been new evidence that’s come up in the UK shift in position, so I think part of that is why we have had mixed messaging — they’re trying to explain to people why they’re doing something now that they didn’t do two months ago.’
She added: ‘Every virologist I know, whether it’s in Germany or in France or in the States or Canada, have gotten their child vaccinated as soon as they become eligible, it hasn’t been something they struggled with, it’s been, “actually I want to protect my child as fast as possible”.’
Professor Wei Shen Lim, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said the recommendation of at least a six-month gap between the second jab and a booster shot was an attempt to find a ‘sweet spot’.
The booster programme should mirror the first phase of the initial vaccine rollout, he said.
‘We want to suggest a six-month limit as a lower limit because we don’t want people to feel they need to rush to have this booster dose,’ he told a Downing Street press conference.
‘Getting a booster dose too early might mean getting a dose when they don’t actually need to have vaccination because they still have a high level of protection.
‘And, as we have seen with the first and second dose, it may be that a longer interval to the third booster dose may actually be beneficial in the longer term.
‘On the other hand, we don’t want to wait too long before offering a booster dose, so trying to find a sweet spot between going too soon and going too late we are suggesting that the booster dose is given no earlier than six months after the second dose.’
He added: ‘Hopefully, this will mean that the levels of protection people have will be highest during the coldest months of the winter.’
Professor Lim said the booster programme will likely help keep hospitalisations low this winter, pointing out that Israel’s rollout had achieved this.
He revealed that there was evidence a booster dose stimulates an even stronger immune response than the first or second injections.
The programme is expected to start in the coming days, with the jabs delivered through a combination of mass vaccination centres, GP surgeries and pharmacies.
Officials said today’s announcement does not mean that boosters will be needed every six months.
Professor Lim urged everyone who was eligible for the Covid vaccine to also get the flu vaccine. He said they could be co-administered on the same day, although in different arms.
Professor Lim said: ‘We have heard from the MHRA and from clinical trial data that it so happens that if somebody is called up to have the Covid vaccine and the flu vaccine on the same day that it is safe to have both vaccines co-administered – usually in different arms, but they can be co-administered on the same day.’
Britain was hit by flu jab shortages last week leaving several GP surgeries having to cancel flu vaccinations.
Reports suggest the shortage was sparked by a lack of lorry drivers to get the jabs to the country.
Professor Van-Tam compared administering booster jabs early rather than waiting for more evidence on post-vaccination immunity to campers who prepare their tents against an incoming storm.
He said at the briefing: ‘I don’t know if many of you are used to crawling into small tents on mountainsides?
‘But if you do so and you know there’s a storm blowing in the night, it’s better to put some extra guy ropes on there and then, than it is to wait until the middle of the night when it’s howling with wind and rain, and you’ve got to get out of your tent and make your tent secure.
‘By the time you crawl back in, you’re soaking wet.
‘So it’s better to be pre-emptive and to be prepared and plan for the worst possibilities.’
Professor Van-Tam warned of a ‘bumpy’ winter ahead as he set out the findings of the review of Covid booster jabs.
He said vaccines had been ‘incredibly successful’ and had so far prevented an estimated 24 million Covid-19 cases and 112,000 deaths.
He added: ‘We know that this pandemic is still active, we are not past the pandemic, we are in an active phase still.
‘We know this winter could be bumpy at times and we know that winter viruses such as flu and RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) are highly likely to make their returns.
‘So with that in mind, the aim if the game, the mantra, is to stay on top of things.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street. The PM is set to flesh out his winter Covid-fighting strategy in a press conference this afternoon, after Health Secretary Sajid Javid has given the outline to MPs in a statement
Over-5s could be next group offered Covid vaccines, says Independent SAGE member
Over-5s could be next in line for a Covid vaccine, an Independent SAGE member has said.
Professor Devi Sridhar, who is a global public health expert at Edinburgh University, told Good Morning Britain jabs for this age group were the ‘next issue on the horizon’.
She said: ‘The exciting thing on the horizon to mention, even for parents of younger kids,
‘It looks like Pfizer is going for approval of the vaccine for five to 11-year-olds in the United States in October, so this is going to be the next issue on the horizon — once we deal with the 12-17 year olds whether we do that for the under-12s.’
Yesterday Professor Chris Whitty and the chief medical officers from the devolved nations recommended vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds, saying they would slash time off school due to the virus.
But they said there were ‘no plans’ to expand the roll out to children in younger age groups.
Professor Whitty told a Downing Street press conference: ‘We certainly have no plans at the moment to re-examine this, there are some nations that are doing this.
‘It hasn’t even got to the point where this has been considered by MHRA, so we’re a long way even thinking about this, so let’s not rush that one at all.’
The chief of Britain’s medical regulator — the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) — said Covid booster abs could be given to over-50s at the same time as flu jabs.
She told a Downing Street briefing: ‘The data reviewed showed that giving the booster jabs with flu vaccines at the same time is safe and does not affect an individual’s immune response to either vaccine.
‘Therefore, Covid-19 booster doses may be given at the same time as flu vaccines.
‘We have in place a comprehensive safety strategy for monitoring the safety of all Covid-19 vaccines, and this surveillance includes the booster jabs.
‘As with first and second doses, if anyone has any suspected side effects, please report using Yellow Card.’
She added that the Moderna, Pfizer, and Astra-Zeneca vaccines can safely be used as booster jabs.
It comes as plans to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds descended into further confusion and controversy today as Britain’s vaccines minister admitted children could ignore their parents’ wishes.
A gloomy Chris Whitty warned yesterday that schools faced another winter of disruption and advised those aged 12 to 15 should be offered single doses of Pfizer’s jab from next week.
No10’s vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said the NHS was ready to begin inoculations from next Wednesday.
There are concerns that while parental consent will be sought, it will not be needed if the healthcare worker administering the jab considers the child is competent to make the decision themselves.
Mr Zahawi admitted that 12-year-olds will be able to override their parents’ wishes on Covid jabs but he admitted it is likely to be ‘a very rare occurrence’. He also said parents shouldn’t be ‘stigmatised’ if they are hesitant about their children being vaccinated, given that top advisers insisted the benefits only marginally outweighed the risks.
But in more confusion, a senior member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), Professor Anthony Harnden, suggested there would be a sliding scale of competency, meaning that it would be easier for a 16-year-old to overrule a parent than for a 12-year-old who is ‘less likely to be deemed competent’ under the ‘Gillick test’, which has been in place for the medical treatment of minors since the 1980s.
Cotswolds Conservative MP Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown told MPs he finds Covid jabs for secondary school children — and the rows it will cause — ‘deeply troubling’.
He said: ‘It will pit parents against parents. Parents against teachers with a poor child stuck in the middle wondering what to do, for very little benefit for the child themselves, with a lack of long-term data of the potential harm.
‘And, above all, what really concerns me about this is the Gillick doctrine of treating children without parental consent will become the norm for a whole range of medical procedures.’
Fellow Tory MP Marcus Fysh has claimed it is a ‘very dark day for our country’ while Ian Duncan Smith said he is sure the vaccines diktat will cause disputes within families after Mr Zahawi confirmed the plans to offer a single Pfizer jab to healthy 12 to 15-year-olds during a speech to the House of Commons last night.
Conservative Dr Caroline Johnson added: ‘I have given many vaccines in my time, including hundreds more recently of Covid vaccines. Half of children have already had coronavirus and are very likely to get it again. Does the minister really believe that vaccinating three million children to prevent an average of four days of school or less is really reasonable?’