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 has 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 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 nd still produces a strong immune response, the JCVI said.
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
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
JCVI chief Professor Wei Shen Lim said six months after the second dose was the ‘sweet spot’ for immunity from booster shots.
He warned that if they were administered too early they might not be needed, and if they were administered too late it could leave older people vulnerable to the virus for a period.
Officials said today’s announcement does not mean that boosters will be needed every six months.
Professor Lim said there was a pressing need for boosters because we are in a ‘very active phase’ of the pandemic, with high transmission and the risk of catching Covid remaining high.
He 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 usually in different arms.
Britain was hit by flu jab shortages last week leaving several GP surgeries having to cancel flu vaccinations.
Reports suggest the availability problems were sparked by a lack of lorry drivers to get the jabs to the country.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam warned of a ‘bumpy’ winter ahead as he set out the findings of the review of Covid booster jabs.
At a Downing Street press conference, he said vaccines had been ‘incredibly successful’ and had so far prevented an estimated 24 million Covid-19 cases and 112,000 deaths.
‘But we also know that this pandemic is still active. We are not past the pandemic, we are in an active phase still.
‘We know that this winter could quite possibly be bumpy at times and we know that other respiratory viruses such as flu and RSV are highly likely to make their returns.’
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?’