Millions of elderly Britons will get third doses of the Covid vaccine this autumn, Boris Johnson said last night.
But it may be weeks before the final details of the booster programme are set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The Prime Minister confirmed yesterday that top-up doses will go ahead this month, adding that the UK needs to ‘go faster’ on vaccinating 16 and 17-year-olds.
The NHS had originally been instructed to start giving boosters to up to 32million people from Monday, but ministers are still waiting for the JCVI to sign off the programme.
Mr Johnson said: ‘The priorities now are the older generation going into autumn and winter, and we have always said there would be a booster programme in September – in this month – and we are going ahead with that.
Boris Johnson confirmed plans to offer top-up doses of the vaccine will go ahead this month
‘What I would also say is 16 to 17-year-olds are eligible, they have been approved, they are a very important group for potential transmission … It is very encouraging to see more and more 16 to 17-year-olds taking the jab, but we need to go faster with those.’
He added: ‘I would just urge everybody who hasn’t yet had a jab to go and get one.’
Members of the JCVI said ‘many millions’ are likely to get third jabs, including the elderly, clinically vulnerable and healthcare workers.
But they are yet to decide which age groups should be included and whether patients should ‘mix and match’ vaccines, for example receive a Pfizer jab after two first doses of AstraZeneca.
The JCVI is facing mounting political pressure to speed up its decision-making. MPs and scientists have warned there is no time to lose in boosting the immunity of the vulnerable and elderly with the threat of a resurgence of coronavirus in the winter.
They are pointing to the situation in Israel, where the case rate is currently the highest in the world, but where over-12s are being offered third doses – helping to curb hospital admissions.
Members of the JCVI said ‘many millions’ are likely to get third jabs, including the elderly, clinically vulnerable and healthcare workers
However, the JCVI say they need to see initial findings from the Cov-Boost study, due next week.
The trial by University Hospital Southampton has looked at nearly 3,000 Britons to test their immune response to third doses.
Yesterday Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, said a decision might take weeks. ‘I think it’s highly likely that there will be a booster programme,’ he said. ‘It’s just the question of how we frame it.’
On Wednesday it was announced that third doses will be offered to half a million people with severely weakened immune systems, who were not sufficiently protected by two doses.
The decision was made separately to deliberations over boosters, which ‘top up’ someone’s immune response.
Yesterday Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New And Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said the JCVI should not wait too long to make a decision.
He said: ‘If we wait for everything [studies] to report before making a judgment, we may well be past the time when we should have been making a decision.’
Questions and Answers about the Government’s booster roll out plans
So what has happened to the promised booster rollout?
It was announced this week that ‘third doses’ – technically not boosters – are to be offered to 500,000 people with severely suppressed immune systems, such as patients with HIV, or those on medication including chemotherapy.
It is because two doses are not enough to generate a strong antibody response.
Why are these different from booster jabs?
Third doses are part of the ‘primary immunisation schedule’ for the severely immunocompromised, given from eight weeks after the second dose.
In contrast, booster jabs are designed to extend waning protection in people who have successfully generated antibodies after two doses, and are given several months after jab two.
So why haven’t boosters been approved yet?
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is waiting for more trial data from UK studies. They have not decided who needs a booster or whether people should get ‘mix and match’ doses – say a Pfizer shot after two intial AstraZeneca jabs.
Wasn’t the rollout supposed to start next week?
Yes, the NHS was hoping to begin the programme on Monday. Ministers still hope to start the programme this month to address fears over declining immunity.
What do we know about declining Covid immunity?
Research suggests immunity begins to decline about five to six months after vaccination or infection, falling faster in the elderly. Data shows the proportion of elderly Britons with antibodies has dropped since May.
So are boosters necessary?
Scientists are divided over whether healthy adults need boosters. But most agree that those with the weakest immune systems –including the elderly and people with other health conditions – will certainly benefit from a top-up dose at some point.
How will a booster programme work?
The NHS has made plans to offer boosters to up to 32million people, including all over-50s, from Monday. These would be delivered at existing vaccine centres, and patients could also get the flu jab at the same time – one shot in each arm.
What is happening in other countries?
Many European nations, including France, are offering boosters to the elderly and vulnerable. Israel, the US and Hungary are giving all adults a third dose.
But the JCVI believes the UK is in a unique situation because it adopted a eight to 12-week gap between the first two doses, rather than four weeks. They think this means Britons have better immunity than other nations.