The government’s failure to quickly roll out third doses of the Covid vaccine to clinically vulnerable people and those with weakened immune systems is endangering thousands of lives, patient groups and experts have warned.
Immunocompromised individuals currently account for one in 20 Covid patients being admitted to intensive care, according to a new analysis by Blood Cancer UK.
These people are less able to mount an immune response after two doses, so are therefore being offered a third to keep them protected. This is separate from the ongoing booster programme, applicable to all over-50s and health care workers.
However, a recent Blood Cancer UK survey suggested that less than half of people with blood cancer, who make up about 230,000 of the 500,000 immunocompromised people in the UK, had been invited to receive their third dose by the second week of October.
Other clinically vulnerable people have reported struggling to book an appointment via their GP practices after being told by NHS England to come forward for a third vaccine dose.
With the situation in Britain reaching a “tipping point”, charities and scientists are fearful the number of immunocompromised in intensive care could further worsen in the weeks to come if they remain unable to access booster jabs.
Gemma Peters, chief executive of Blood Cancer UK, said the rollout of doses among these groups has been “pretty disastrous, with many people struggling for weeks to try to get an appointment.”
She told The Independent: “This has caused a huge amount of distress and anxiety, and is likely to have caused avoidable deaths. It is appalling that over a month after the roll-out started, parts of the NHS still seem unaware that the third dose programme for the immunocompromised even exists.”
According to a recent survey by the charity, only 44 per cent of 2,900 people with blood cancer have been offered a third dose by 11 October – the date by which NHS England said all immunocompromised people should have been invited.
“The government and the NHS urgently need to announce that immunocompromised people can book their third dose through the central phone line, or go direct to their nearest mass vaccination centre,” said Ms Peters. “The longer the roll-out of third doses drifts as it is at the moment, the more lives will be at risk.”
Earlier in the pandemic, one in 30 people being admitted to intensive care was immunocompromised. However, analysis of data from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre (ICNARC) shows that, since May, these groups have accounted for a higher proportion of critically ill Covid patients.
Kidney Care UK said that thousands of immunosuppressed kidney patients have experienced similar issues in “getting third vaccines that they have been eligible for since the start of September”.
Fiona Loud, the charity’s policy director, told The Independent: “We are still hearing from people who have had no communication from the NHS or who have tried to arrange their appointment but are met with confusion or denial.
“It is clear that there has been a woeful lack of communication or processes put in place; this has resulted in a perfect storm where kidney patients have been left unprotected and exposed to unnecessary risk – at a time when cases are rising.”
Some 49,139 people tested positive on Wednesday, while 179 further deaths were reported. Up to 19 October, 7,891 patients were in hospital with Covid – and officials have warned that the rate of admission is increasing fast.
“We are at a tipping point with increased levels of infection against a backdrop of waning vaccine-induced immunity and the easing of all restrictions,” said Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University.
Health secretary Sajid Javid told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday that some immunocompromised patients hadn’t received a third dose yet as they “might not be eligible at this point” due to treatment that they’re receiving for their condition. “So there are some people that are waiting because of the advice of their clinician,” he added.
The wider booster programme is also continuing to lag. Close to 4 million booster jabs have been administered in England to date, out of 7.9 million people who are eligible to receive one.
NHS England said that invitations have yet to be sent to 1.9 million of these but insisted that they would be sent this week.
A spokesperson for the NHS said: “While the NHS can only invite people to get their booster six months on from their second jab, millions of people are getting invited within days of becoming eligible and as there is plenty of capacity available, the NHS message remains that when you are invited, you should book in immediately.”