Covid vaccine booster programme could begin next month

20 August 2021, 11:44

The vaccine booster programme will be offered to those "most vulnerable" first.
The vaccine booster programme will be offered to those "most vulnerable" first. Picture: Alamy

By Elizabeth Haigh

Covid-19 vaccine boosters will go ahead and could begin as early as next month, despite scientists' cautionary warnings.

Health secretary Sajid Javid did not give an exact start date, saying the government is waiting for "final advice" from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Under the scheme, the "most vulnerable" would be offered a third jab first, but it remains unclear whether the boosters would be available for all adults or just those that are more at risk.

Last month the JCVI released advice that stated over 30 million people, including everyone over the age of 50, should receive a third dose.

Asked about the scheme on 19 August, Mr Javid said: "We are going to have a booster scheme. It will start some time in September."

He added that he could not give an exact start date because the government is waiting for "the final advice from our group of experts, our independent scientific and medical advisers, the JCVI, and so we're waiting for their final opinion."

Read more: Fully-vaccinated can still spread Delta variant but vaccines remain essential, say scientists

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Immunologist Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said the "question about boosters is a contentious one".

He said research into whether booster schemes are effective is not yet completed and "everyone is very keen that if we do have surplus vaccines, that they're not necessarily used in this country, but might be sent overseas".

Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, echoed this cautious sentiment: "I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme," he told broadcasters.

But he added that the committee would be "imminently deciding" that some people "will need a third dose, particularly people who we know are very unlikely to be well protected by those first two doses".

Read more: All England's 16 and 17-year-olds to be offered jab by 23 August - Sajid Javid

Scientists have not yet advised whether younger people should receive a third jab.
Scientists have not yet advised whether younger people should receive a third jab. Picture: Alamy

The scale of such a booster scheme is hotly debated. For those who are immunosuppressed there are clear advantages, as it can take more than two jabs in order for them to get the same level of protection as the general population. 

But for the general public, it seems that two doses are sufficient to provide lasting protection and prevent people becoming seriously ill and needing hospital treatment.

There are also ethical questions. Earlier this month Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, the head of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said doses should "go where they can have the greatest impact" - to protect unvaccinated people abroad. In the poorest countries, just 1% of people have received the coronavirus vaccine.

Professor Pollard added that decisions on whether to give boosters "should be scientifically driven".

Asked whether the JCVI had concerns about plans for the booster scheme, Mr Javid said: "It's only with their expert advice that government would want to continue with their plans.

Read more: Covid vaccines mandatory for care home staff from November 11

All those aged 16 and 17 will have been offered a vaccine by 23 August, the health secretary has said.
All those aged 16 and 17 will have been offered a vaccine by 23 August, the health secretary has said. Picture: Alamy

"I don't want to prejudge what they're going to say but, based on their interim advice, I think we can be confident that we will start a booster scheme next month." 

So far 47,460,526 first doses have now been administered across the UK, while 41,157,069 people have been given two doses.

This comes just days after the Moderna vaccine was approved for use for 12-17 year olds in the UK. Separately, Mr Javid confirmed that all 16 and 17 year olds are to be offered the vaccine by 23 August.