The UK has cut the six-month wait for Covid-19 booster shots for certain vulnerable groups in an attempt to speed up the rollout, which ministers hope will avoid the need for fresh coronavirus restrictions to suppress record-high infection rates.
The new advice, published in the UK Health Security Agency’s ‘green book’, is aimed at easing operational hitches in the booster programme, giving care home residents, housebound individuals and people receiving treatments that suppress their immune system quicker access to third doses.
Meanwhile, estimates from the Office for National Statistics infection survey, which offers the most accurate snapshot of the pandemic, found infections in the week ending October 22 hit a record high, eclipsing the January peak when the UK was subject to severe restrictions to prevent a surge overwhelming the NHS.
The change, which means all care home residents can have their third jab after five months, will allow vaccine teams to inoculate more residents per visit when it “makes operational sense”, the health department said on Friday. People who are due to receive immunosuppressive treatment will be able to get the jab after only a four-month wait.
About 1.27m people in the UK had coronavirus in the week ending October 22, according to the Office for National Statistics, up nearly 9 per cent on the week before and higher than the early January peak when 1.22m infections were recorded in a single week.
But the government has remained steadfast that its accelerated booster rollout can tame the high level of infections before winter, avoiding the need to activate ‘Plan B’ measures, including compulsory mask-wearing, working from home and vaccine passports, to stop Covid and flu straining the NHS over winter.
About 7.2m Britons have received a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but a further 7.7m eligible people, including over-50s and healthcare workers, are yet to have the booster shot. “Our life-saving booster vaccines are ensuring millions are protected over the winter,” said health secretary Sajid Javid.
While the NHS is struggling with a backlog of patients whose treatments were delayed by the pandemic, the pressure from coronavirus remains far below January levels when there were nearly 40,000 Covid patients in hospitals at one time. The figure now stands at just under 9,000.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Spi-M modelling advisory group, said he “[saw] no reason” why the wait for booster shots should not be reduced from six to five months for all eligible people. The UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is set to discuss the issue in a meeting next week.
“Without doubt, boosting everybody’s immunity as quickly as we can will be beneficial in terms of directly protecting people and keeping a downward pressure on transmission,” said Ferguson.
In a sign of improving trends, daily coronavirus cases have been falling across the UK since Sunday, driven by plummeting infections among under-20s and over-80s, suggesting the booster campaign and the school half-term break were restraining infection rates.
On Friday, a further 43,497 coronavirus cases were reported across the UK, down 11.8 per cent on the same day last week.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the ONS data came “too soon to show whether the fall in daily reported cases in the past few days [represented] a real decline in infections”, adding that next week’s ONS infection survey would offer confirmation of the improving picture.
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at Edinburgh university, said he remained concerned by the “slow-burn rise” in hospital pressures ahead of winter.
However, Woolhouse said he was “heartened” by recent Sage modelling which indicated cases could drop to about 5,000 a day before Christmas.