Health chiefs warn it will take time for the over-stretched NHS to ramp up the Covid vaccine booster rollout as the expansion is set to pile more pressure on the health system
Delays expanding the Covid vaccine booster rollout could leave Britain vulnerable as Omicron cases soar.
Evidence suggests the new variant spreads more easily than the dominant Delta, Boris Johnson warned as modelling showed its R value could be as high as 3.47.
But booster rollout has been flatlining – and health chiefs warn it will take time for the over-stretched NHS to ramp it up after millions more became eligible for a third dose.
From today over-40s who had their second dose at least three months ago will be able to book their booster, it emerged last night.
Those whose last jab was two months ago will also be able to book a month in advance.
NHS England chief Amanda Pritchard said: “There is a lot we do not know about the Omicron variant but experts believe that even if existing vaccines are less effective they will give protection.
“So I would urge anyone eligible to come forward as soon as possible, and to keep checking for appointments in their area.”
NHS England was criticised for waiting nine days to make booking available after regulators halved the wait between second doses and boosters from six months to three.
But the expansion will pile more pressure on the health system.
NHS Providers chief Chris Hopson said: “We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of the logistical challenge required to ramp up the vaccination programme to full speed for the new booster population. The NHS is beyond flat out, and this is another challenge adding strain on to an already very pressured system.”
GPs and pharmacies are being urged to restart vaccinations after many stopped to focus on the NHS backlog. A third of mass vaccination centres in stadiums and conference centres have shut since the peak of the initial jab rollout, and many hospitals also stopped operating as vaccination hubs.
One NHS hospital chief, who asked to remain anonymous, said: “It feels like mile 23 of the marathon, but the finish line keeps getting further away.”
Fewer people were jabbed over the weekend than they were before the PM promised to expand the campaign last Wednesday, figures show.
The 221,674 jabs on Sunday were down from 223,189 a week earlier. Monday’s 329,165 were up on 318,671 the previous week.
For two weeks the daily average has been around 380,000 – some 2.6 million a week. The target is for 3.5 million a week to hit the end-of-January deadline for all adults in England and Wales.
Ministers have been criticised for not calling on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to expand jabs to all adults earlier. The Prime Minister asked scientific advisers 10 days ago if they would back the expansion.
Weekly reported Covid cases have risen to their highest level since January, with 336,893 in the past seven days including 45,691 yesterday.
Omicron cases hit 437 as 101 new infections were confirmed by genetic sequencing yesterday – up from 90 new cases the day before.
An R-value of 3.47 for Omicron was suggested in modelling by the University of East Anglia, with likely 2,500 cases since November 20. At least two cases were linked to a party in Somerset which Prof Tim Spector, of King’s College London, described as a “super-spreader” 60th birthday party.
The Prime Minister is due to decide next week whether fresh restrictions are needed once experts have provided more data on the new variant.
The PM’s official spokesman said: “[He] said it was too early to draw conclusions on the characteristics of Omicron but that early indications were that it was more transmissible than Delta. The PM reiterated that booster vaccines remain our best defence against new and existing variants, with the NHS on course to meet the target of offering a booster to all adults by the end of January.”
Welsh Health Minister Eluned Morgan said the country expected a significant wave of Omicron to hit by the end of January.
She said it was now clear the coronavirus variant “spreads very rapidly” and she believed “that is clearly cause for concern”. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon yesterday ordered Scots to work from home if they can.
New drive for jab staff and volunteers
The NHS has begun a new recruitment drive for volunteers and paid staff on the anniversary of the first person in the world to receive an authorised Covid jab.
Margaret Keenan, 90, had the Pfizer jab in Coventry after the UK regulator became the first to approve a Covid-19 vaccine.
Until then the only people to get jabs were on human clinical trials.
Some 10,000 new roles are being advertised including vaccinators, admin and healthcare support staff. The NHS is also working with the Royal Voluntary Service and St John Ambulance to enrol over 42,000 volunteers.
Amanda Pritchard, chief exec of NHS England, said the vaccination programme is “the biggest and fastest in our history” having delivered almost 100 million jabs. She added: “The rollout would not have been as successful as it has without the help of thousands of volunteers. The NHS and the country needs you once again.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.