Fears over the Omicron Covid variant mean all UK adults will now be offered a third dose of Covid vaccine, either Pfizer or Moderna. And the gap between second and third doses will be halved from six to three months
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Britain’s Covid-19 booster programme has been expanded to include all over-18s in an effort to protect against the new Omicron variant.
Third doses will also be fast tracked with the gap between the second and third doses halved from six to three months.
Children aged 12 to 15 will now also be offered second doses. Until now only first doses had been approved for children.
The expansion of the vaccination programme comes as six more cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in Britain.
The six more cases in Scotland – some of which had no link to foreign travel – came on top of three UK cases already confirmed on Sunday and health chiefs are braced for significant numbers in the coming days.
Until now only over-40s and those with certain health conditions were eligible for a third dose.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid – who was due to give a statement to Parliament at 3.30pm – had asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) whether the booster programme could be expanded.
Rolling booster shots out to health under-40s will hugely increase the scope of the NHS drive to get jabs in to arms.
Regulators are concerned about a “mismatch” between Covid-19 vaccines – which were designed to combat the original Wuhan variant – and Omicron.
All adults will now be offered third doses in the original priority list, going down by five-year age brackets.
The new JCVI advice will now go to the UK Government and devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales and Norther Ireland, which are expected to approve it imminently.
The changes will place huge pressure on the already-overstretched NHS to administer the vaccines at speed.
The changes were announced in a live televised Downing Street briefing, hosted by Professor Jonathan Van Tam.
England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer is joined by JCVI chair Professor Wei Shen Lim, and the chief executive of regulator the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), Dr June Raine.
Professor Wei Shen Lim said: “Having a booster dose of the vaccine will help to increase our level of protection against the Omicron variant.
“This is an important way for us to reduce the impact of this variant on our lives, especially in the coming months.
“If you are eligible for a booster, please take up the offer and keep yourself protected as we head into winter.”
Prof Van Tam said Omicron, which has more than 30 mutations, is “new kid on the block” and of greater concern – but added: “This is not all doom and gloom at this stage. And I do not want people to panic at this stage.”
But he later said: “I’m asking people not to panic – but I’m not asking them either to completely ignore the weather forecast.”
He said “there are far more things we don’t know yet than things we do know”, including whether the variant could resist vaccines.
He said scientists must get live samples of the Omicron virus and test them, asking the public: “Please, everyone needs to give us time to assemble that data.”
A six month interval between second and third doses is thought to provide longer lasting immunity.
However officials are concerned about a new Covid-19 wave and insist boosters are best administered before a wave, to give a few weeks for immunity to develop.
Dr Raine said: “The public can be confident that our robust regulatory assessment supports the JCVI’s recommended extension to the vaccination campaign.
“This further strengthens our ability to ensure people are protected against Covid-19 and saves lives.
“Our safety monitoring to date shows that Covid-19 vaccines continue to have a positive safety profile for the majority of people.
“The vast majority of reactions which are reported relate to expected side effects such as injection site reactions and flu-like symptoms, as was seen in our initial assessment. Our proactive monitoring of the safety of booster doses does not raise any new concerns.
“We have continued to carefully scrutinise all the data we have available to us and our robust surveillance programme includes monitoring all suspected reactions for young people and adolescents as well as adults.
We ensure all suspected reports are carefully followed up.
“When you are called for your booster dose, you can come forward confident that the benefits in preventing serious Covid-19 far outweigh any risks.”
The vaccines on offer for third doses will continue to be those by Pfizer and Moderna.
The UK government is enacting compulsory face masks in England’s shops, public transport and hairdressers from 4am tomorrow, with £200 fines for those who disobey.
Teachers and pupils in Year 7 and above are now being “strongly advised” to wear masks in communal areas outside classrooms in England.
Ten countries have been added to England’s red list, forcing all arrivals into hotel quarantine. They are Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
From 4am tomorrow, all travellers to the UK will have to take a paid-for PCR test on or before day two after their arrival, and isolate until the result comes back negative.
All contacts of suspected Omicron cases will also have to self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of whether they’re fully-vaccinated.
But those in pubs and restaurants will not need to wear masks while moving around despite urgings from Labour.
Boris Johnson also stopped short of forcing crowded venues like nightclubs to ask punters for a vaccine passport, another part of England’s Plan B for winter.
That is despite voluntary guidance saying: “You should wear face coverings in crowded and enclosed areas where you come into contact with people you do not usually meet.”
People are also urged to take lateral flow tests before going to Christmas parties or other crowded settings.
But No10 slapped down calls for schools to break up early for Christmas, saying sending pupils home should only happen if there’s “absolutely no other choice”.
Boris Johnson also rejected a plea by the leaders of Wales and Scotland to impose much tougher UK travel restrictions, which would see all arrivals isolating for eight days and taking two PCR tests.
Ministers said the restrictions were a bid to buy time while scientists work out whether the variant could be more resistant to a vaccine.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman said: “No one has any hard evidence of its impact on things like hospitalisations”.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.