A week after the government vowed to put the booster vaccination programme “on steroids”, under-40s are still unable to book their third jab on the NHS website.
On 30 November, the Department of Health announced that the booster scheme would be extended from anyone aged over 40 to all adults by the end of January. It also said that seven million more over-40s would be able to book their booster as the time needed between doses would be halved.
Over-40s who had their second dose three months ago can book their booster jabs from today, but Boris Johnson has conceded that the programme could go “faster”, reported The Times. Others are also able to book appointments “up to a month” in advance of becoming eligible.
“The booster programme is the fastest in Europe; I think we have done more boosters than any comparable country,” Johnson told reporters last night. “That doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster.”
He hoped that the reduction of waiting time between doses would “lead to a big uptick in the programme”.
The latest government data shows that 329,165 booster jabs were given on Monday – falling short of the government target of 500,000 booster jabs a day – while the rolling average has risen “only 5 per cent since the expansion was announced last Monday”, said the newspaper.
Booster programme ‘stuck in first gear’
The booster vaccination scheme is battling accusations that it is “stuck in first gear”, said The Telegraph. Third-jab figures were lower last weekend than the previous one, despite promises to rapidly expand and accelerate the programme last week.
According to the latest NHS figures, 221,674 boosters were given on Sunday, down from 223,189 the week before. And 412,755 booster jabs were given on Saturday, compared with 419,657 on the same day the previous week.
While the weekly figure for England has risen slightly, from 2.16 million to 2.24 million, and the UK figure from 2.56 million to 2.64 million, “they are some way off the government target, which pledged to deliver 3.5 million jabs a week”, said the paper.
Boris Johnson promised his government would be “throwing everything” at the expanded vaccination campaign, with “temporary vaccination centres popping up like Christmas trees” in a bid to fulfil its ambitious target.
But concerns have been building that the government is unlikely to see its ambitions fulfilled. Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said on Monday night: “We want the Government to succeed, but the truth is they’ve been stuck in first gear on the booster roll-out.”
He urged Health Secretary Sajid Javid to “provide an update on when he expects to hit that target of half a million booster jabs a day”.
The Whitehall ‘blame game’
The speed of the government’s booster vaccination programme had already been of some concern before it was extended last week.
In November, the British Medical Journal (BMJ) noted the booster roll-out had been “far slower than the initial vaccination programme that began last winter” and cited possible reasons as “a lack of urgency among some members of the public and government complacency over the roll-out”.
The BMJ also said that the programme may have been slowed due to a “confusing fragmentation of the current programmes”, which is split into the government’s booster programme, third jabs for the clinically vulnerable, and first jabs for children. It also suggested difficulties had been caused by a reduction in the involvement of GPs due to “workload and workforce pressures and a policy directive from NHS England not to allow GPs to offer booster vaccines at practice level in the same way they do with flu vaccines”.
Across Whitehall, health sources have privately accepted that the NHS and the country’s public health bodies have “not risen to the task set by Johnson”, said the London Playbook, and a “blame game” has now broken out over the slow pace of the roll-out, said The Telegraph.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been criticised for waiting to cut the gap between second and third jabs from six months to three.
While some under-40s have received invitations for vaccination locally, the NHS England booking system is yet to open booking slots for the lower age range. Health guidance released to the health service on Friday revealed that the expanded roll-out may not begin in full until 13 December, reported Sky News.
The delay had been blamed on the UK Health Security Agency, which needs to provide legal instruction on approving non-medical vaccinators to give booster jabs under new rules.
But some health sources said that updates to guidance “should not cause delays” as “updates in protocols apply only to non-medical professionals, with doctors, nurses and pharmacists already allowed to follow the new guidance”, said The Telegraph.
As of last night, the dispute was said to have been “resolved”, said The Times, with legal approval “finally granted for a full expansion of the programme”.