Over 50s to get fast-track second jab as England's unlocking continues

14 May 2021, 18:03 | Updated: 14 May 2021, 18:49

By Joe Cook

The rollout of second doses for over 50s and the clinically vulnerable will accelerate in England, Boris Johnson has announced, as he confirmed the planned lockdown easing will go ahead on Monday.

The move to accelerate the rollout of second Covid-19 vaccinations for the most vulnerable comes as the government tries to clamp down on the spread of a variant of concern that was first found in India.

The prime minister stressed that the "good news is that so far we have no evidence to suggest that our vaccines will be less effective in protecting people against severe illness and hospitalisation" with the B.1.617.2 variant.

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More investigation into whether the new variant is much more transmissible is needed.

Addressing the press conference, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said "there is now confidence" amongst experts that the Indian variant is more transmissible than the B.1.1.7 variant first found in Kent.

"We expect over time this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK, in the way that B.1.1.7 took over and indeed other variants have taken over prior to that," Prof Whitty explained.

Second dose rollout accelerated

The acceleration of the rollout of second doses will see the period between jabs reduced from 12 weeks to eight. Prof Whitty said this was being done "because we think that people who have had a second vaccine will have greater protection not only against the original variants but also against this new variant".

"The prioritisation of the second doses will not, we think, delay the rollout for people in younger ages," he added.

First doses for over 40s who have not yet come forward will also be prioritised, Mr Johnson also announced.

Read more: Indian variant: How many cases are in the UK? Is it more dangerous?

Professor Chris Whitty said scientists now believe the Indian variant is likely to become the dominant one in the UK.
Professor Chris Whitty said scientists now believe the Indian variant is likely to become the dominant one in the UK. Picture: PA

Monday lockdown relaxation to go ahead

Mr Johnson called on the public to "exercise caution and common sense", adding "it's very clear now we're going to have to live with this new variant of the virus for some time so let's work together".

From Monday the lockdown easing will go ahead, permitting socialising indoors and the reopening of cinemas, hotels and some larger events with restrictions on capacity.

The PM defended the decision to go ahead with the relaxation of rules next week, but added: "I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June. I must stress that we will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe."

Read more: What lockdown restrictions are lifting in England on 17th May?

"It is just too early to talk about exactly what the summer will be like, we have seen this new variant arrive. We have been watching it for a while, we are now seeing the risk that it is more transmissible than B.1.1.7," Mr Johnson told reporters.

"This doesn't mean that it is impossible for us to go ahead with step four, I don't think that is the case at all, but it does mean there is now the risk of disruption and delay, delay to that ambition and we have to be utterly realistic about that.

"I want to stress again, we take nothing off the table as a means of controlling this virus and this variant and we will do whatever it takes to keep you all safe."

Explained: What are the four tests for the roadmap out of lockdown?

People queue for the vaccination centre at the Essa Academy in Bolton.
People queue for the vaccination centre at the Essa Academy in Bolton. Picture: PA

Army to help in Bolton and Blackburn

While the lockdown rules will ease across England on Monday, additional virus suppression measures will be introduced in Bolton and Blackburn, where most cases of the Indian variant have been found so far.

Vaccination and testing efforts will be accelerated, with longer opening hours at vaccine hubs and the army deployed on the street to hand out Covid tests.

Mr Johnson also called on the people of Bolton and Blackburn to "play their part in stopping the spread of the new variant", adding: "Our best chance of suppressing this variant is to clamp down on it, wherever it is and we'll be throwing everything we can (at it)."

The PM also urged people to "think twice" ahead of travelling to areas with higher incidences of the Indian variant and staying with family and friends within those areas.

"We want people in those areas to recognise that there is extra risk, an extra threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant and just to exercise their discretion and judgment in a way I'm sure that they have been throughout this pandemic," he said.

More to follow.