Ed Argar said an autumn booster was being developed to “outwit” a virus that is constantly evolving to beat human defences.
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, told Times Radio: “I can’t see us having another Cheltenham Festival with no regulations again. I can’t see us having massive weddings with people coming from all over the world.”
Danny Altmann, Professor of Immunology at Imperial College London, said people must be patient and not be “jumping up and down asking when we can ease lockdown”.
Highly contagious new strains also put a question mark over ambitions to achieve herd immunity within months. Professor Shabir Madhi, from the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, suggested the focus should shift from the aim of herd immunity to the protection of all “at risk” individuals against severe disease.
The South African variant has already been identified in at least 147 cases in Britain and “surge testing” is being carried out in hotspots, including in three London boroughs — Ealing, Haringey and Merton.
Mr Argar stressed that the Oxford jab still works on the Kent mutation, the fastest-spreading strain in the UK, and there was no evidence that it does not prevent serious illness and fatalities from the South African variant, which meant the jab being rolled out to millions of Britons should still save lives and prevent hospitals being swamped.
But he indicated that an autumn dose is increasingly likely to protect against new strains. “It’s in the nature of how these viruses behave, they mutate,” he told Sky News. “They try to outwit us.
“What we would all expect is every year we have our flu booster jabs, or our flu jabs, it would not be unreasonable to suggest something similar here.”
He went on: “They’re already working on identifying what those new variants might be, to update the vaccine, so it continues to keep pace with a virus that will always try to outwit us. We have got to make sure we get ahead of the game and outwit it.”
Mr Argar later told LBC that the rollout of the vaccine was on track to get every adult dosed by the summer. “By autumn we will be able to do those additional jabs for boosters if required.”
– Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, warned the virus will “bounce back” if restrictions are lifted too early. He told BBC Breakfast: “We made that mistake last year and look what happened in the North after the summer — the virus has bounced straight back.”
– Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi sought to reassure the public about the deployment programme, writing: “We can take confidence from the current roll-out and the protection it will provide all of us against this terrible disease.”
– The Home Office has announced that illegal immigrants will be given vaccines without checks on their immigration status. It means officials will not take action if someone in the illegally registers with a GP to be vaccinated.
– Moves to extend the summer term to give pupils time to catch up were not ruled out by Mr Argar. He said the Education Secretary was looking at a “whole range of things”.
– A health watchdog has claimed some patients in need of dental care have had to call 50 to 60 practices to try to get help, with some even being advised to treat themselves. Warning of a looming crisis, Healthwatch England’s Imelda Redmond told Sky News: “The scale of the distress that people have been through is extraordinary.”
Professor Salim Abdool Karim, head of South Africa’s ministerial advisory committee on Covid-19, said there was still hope that the Oxford dose will protect older age groups from serious illness. He told Times Radio: “Our problem is we don’t know if the AstraZeneca vaccine will be effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalisation in the population. That’s why we felt we should hold until that information becomes available.”
He added: “We are planning on rolling it out. This is just a temporary delay, but the way in which we’re going to roll it out is going to be different. We’re taking a two-step approach, the first is to vaccinate around 100,000 individuals and assess what the hospitalisation rates are. Once we’re confident the hospitalisation rates are low with the AstraZeneca vaccine, then we proceed to roll out the remaining million doses we have.”