British prime minister Boris Johnson on Sunday announced that all over-18s across England will be offered their Covid-19 booster jab by the new year, in response to what he called a "tidal wave of Omicron" infections approaching the country.
Speaking in a televised briefing, Mr Johnson warned that two doses of vaccine were no longer “enough to give the level of protection we all need”, and as a result the British government was launching an expansion of the booster rollout, dubbed “the Omicron emergency boost”.
“Everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the new year,” he said, adding that the National Health Service booking system would open to the remaining younger cohorts from Wednesday.
Earlier this month in response to the new variant, the government cut the gap between second and third doses from six to three months and pledged that all adults would be offered a jab by the end of January.
Mr Johnson added that he had spoken to the devolved administrations "to confirm the UK government will provide additional support to accelerate vaccinations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland".
According to figures published on December 12th, more than 23 million people across the UK have had either a booster or third dose.
The accelerated rollout would be aided by the deployment of 42 military planning teams across every region, additional vaccine sites and mobile units and extending opening hours so clinics are open seven days a week, Mr Johnson said, “with more appointments early in the morning, in the evening, and at weekends, and training thousands more volunteer vaccinators”.
The prime minister conceded that "some other appointments" within the health service would "need to be postponed until the new year" in order to allow the NHS to meet the new, more ambitious target.
“If we don’t do this now, the wave of Omicron could be so big that cancellations and disruptions, like the loss of cancer appointments, would be even greater next year,” he added.
Alert level raised
The announcement follows confirmation of the first Omicron cases in UK hospitals and the decision by the country’s chief medical officers to increase the Covid alert level from three to four.
In a joint statement confirming the decision, the CMOs for England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland alongside Prof Stephen Powis, NHS England National medical director, warned that the new variant now posed a risk to health services.
“Early evidence shows that Omicron is spreading much faster than Delta and that vaccine protection against symptomatic disease from Omicron is reduced,” they said. “Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalisations from Omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly”
Covid alert levels are used to provide ministers with an assessment of the UK’s coronavirus situation. The fourth level, which is the second-highest warning, indicates that coronavirus transmission is “high” while the pressure on health services is “substantial or rising”.
The UK Health Security Agency said that an additional 1,239 Omicron cases were recorded across the UK on Sunday, bringing the total number of cases to 3,137
Earlier on Sunday, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi warned that the "highly infectious" nature of the new variant meant that it could "dominate and exponentially grow".
Even if the variant proved to cause less severe illness than previous strains such as Delta, its infectious nature meant it would potentially overwhelm hospitals, Mr Zahawi added. About a third of cases in London now involve Omicron, he said.
Surge in infections
Meanwhile, Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for the UKHSA, said that there remained increasing concern within the health community about the impact of a possible surge in infections on the NHS and warned that more restrictions may be needed.
“It’s inevitable that we’re going to see a big wave of infections”, she told the BBC. “I think that the restrictions that the government have announced are sensible. I think that we may need to go beyond them,” she said, adding that scientists needed to watch hospitalisations “carefully”.
Recent modelling by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that without additional restrictions that go beyond Plan B, the UK could see up to 75,000 Covid deaths linked to the Omicron variant by the end of April.
The UK Department of Health has announced that from Tuesday, adults who are double-vaccinated and are identified as a contact of someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, will have to take lateral flow tests for seven days instead of self isolating. Unvaccinated individuals will still have to self isolate for 10 days, under the new guidance. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021