The NHS has blocked attempts to roll out a “surge” vaccination programme to people as young as 18 in areas hit by growing cases of the Indian coronavirus variant.
As the government considers implementing targeted inoculations in regions that have recorded a recent rise in infections driven by the variant, one council in Lancashire attempted to take matters into its own hands, saying it would offer vaccines to those aged 18 and over in three wards of Blackburn with Darwen, before health officials blocked the move.
Although the jabs are thought to be capable of neutralising the variant, scientists have urged the government to ramp up vaccinations in England’s hardest-hit areas, while some have gone further in arguing that the lifting of restrictions should be delayed until more data is collected.
B1.617.2 has driven numerous outbreaks across the country in recent days, including in Bolton, London and Blackburn. Up to 5 May, a total of 520 cases of the variant had been detected, though it is believed this figure has since significantly increased, with new data due to be released imminently.
There is confidence among experts that the variant won’t be able to significantly evade the immune response generated by the vaccines – though its high transmissibility has sparked concern within No 10, which called an urgent meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) to address whether the variant could impact the UK’s road map out of lockdown.
Downing Street said that there were no plans to reintroduce regional restrictions but did not rule out localised action on vaccinations.
“We want to consider all options,” the prime minister’s spokesperson said on Thursday. “We’re not going to rule anything out. We want to make sure we keep the public safe and keep our roadmap on track.
“The meeting is happening with Sage today. And should they come out with any further updates on this variant originating in India and its epidemiology in the UK, then we will consider it.”
Having set itself the targeting of offering a first dose to all adults by the end of July, it’s unclear if this would be impacted by any decision to roll out surge vaccinations, or whether the UK has the supplies for it.
Two scientific advisers to the government, speaking in a personal capacity, told The Independent that targeted vaccinations could help to slow down rising transmission rates and bring the situation under control.
“Overall this strategy makes sense,” said Kamlesh Khunti, a professor of vascular medicine at Leicester University and Sage member.
“There are areas we’re already doing surge testing for, so it makes sense to introduce targeted vaccinations in these areas as they will have the highest risk of transmission.”
Susan Michie, a professor of health psychology at University College London and member of Sage’s sub-group on pandemic behaviour, said the government needs “to throw everything we can at it”.
“If you take it to people’s doors, into the street they live in, people who are a bit hesitant, if you make it easy, they may be more likely to accept the vaccine,” she said.
“It [surge vaccinations] signals the importance of it. People will realise, if the messaging is right, that what this is about is stopping transmission from further increasing in a specific area.”
She warned that B1.617.2 is already “rising exponentially” in some parts of the country. The Kent variant makes up the majority of daily cases that are being reported, but B1.617.2 is accounting for a growing proportion.
For the week ending 1 May, more than 10 per cent of cases in England, excluding imported infections, were caused by B1.617.2, according to the Sanger Institute. These were concentrated in the north west, London and east of England.
Prof Kamlesh argued that surge vaccinations would also help to address disparities in infection rates between the least and most deprived areas of the countries, the latter of which have been hit hardest by Covid-19.
“These are the populations that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic and we know are also areas with lower uptake of vaccines,” he said. “Targeting vaccination strategies to these areas could therefore help.”
Following a local rise in cases, Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council announced that it would be offering vaccines to over-18s in three separate wards. It said it had secured “extra doses” to implement the policy from next week.
However, the council was later forced to abandon the strategy following pressure from central health officials. One NHS source said the council had not been given the authority to adopt surge vaccinations, insisting that authorities will continue to follow the advice set by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
In neighbouring Bolton, the Indian variant has also been linked to a recent spike of cases reported among young people. With 152 infections per 100,000 people in the week up to 7 May, the town has the second highest infection rate in England. It also has one of the country’s highest rates of B1.617.2.
Although current data suggest that the variants are not spreading into older, vaccinated age groups, there are fears that a significant rise in cases among unprotected adults would help to fuel a third wave of infections and hospitalisations as more restrictions are eased.
“There is a concern that there are rising transmission rates even whilst we have the restrictions that are due to be lifted on Monday,” said Prof Michie.
Introducing concentrated vaccination programmes to those at-risk areas “may take some weeks” before the effects are felt, said Irene Petersen, a professor of epidemiology at UCL, but this approach will ultimately “help to bring the outbreaks under control”.
Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said, “Not letting variants in in the first place is preferable. Frankly, our border policy is woeful.”
Although surge vaccinations could help, he added, “Jabbing folks will take time, plus there’s the need for two or so weeks for protection to start.”
Aris Katzourakis, a professor of evolution and genomics at Oxford University, said the immediate focus should be to “box in” the outbreak through “slower unlocking in these areas, surge testing and track and trace. Then push it down gradually with extra vaccination”.