The Covid-19 booster vaccination programme is to be extended to include healthy people aged 40 to 49 as the government seeks to avoid a winter surge in cases and hospitalisations.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said all adults over the age of 40 should be offered a booster, six months after their second dose.
The JCVI said the two new policies will “help extend our protection into 2022” while prime minster Boris Johnson insisted there was still nothing in the data to suggest restrictions were needed –despite a “storm of infection” in Europe.
Earlier on Monday, Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party chairman, insisted that the UK’s vaccination programme offers the best assurance that further Covid-19 measures will not be needed over Christmas.
“It is in our hands. If you get the booster when the call comes that is the biggest wall of defence that we have against Covid,” he told Sky News. “I am confident that if we stick the course, people take the boosters when they are asked to do so, that vaccine wall will hold up and we will be able to have a decent Christmas this year.”
A new study from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has shown that two weeks after receiving a booster dose, protection against symptomatic infection was 93.1 per cent among those who had initially received Oxford/AstraZeneca, and 94.0 per cent for Pfizer/BioNTech jab.
While experts say vaccine effectiveness against severe outcomes, such as hospital admission, remains high for several months after completing the primary course, researchers have seen greater waning in older adults and those with underlying medical conditions compared with young, healthy adults.
However, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said the “waning signal” after two vaccine doses is also starting to show in those aged 40 to 49, adding that this is why the JCVI has “acted decisively” in extending the booster jab rollout.
People aged under 40 might also be advised to get a booster in the future, said Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of Covid-19 immunisation for the JCVI.
He told a Downing Street briefing: “We are looking very closely at the data all the time and should there be sufficient signal to warrant a third dose, so a booster dose for this age group, then certainly we will announce that and advise that accordingly.”
So far, some 12.6 million people in the UK have had a third Covid-19 jab. Individuals eligible for a booster are to be offered the Pfizer or Moderna jab, irrespective of which vaccine they initially received.
Prof Lim said: “Booster vaccine doses in more vulnerable adults, and second vaccine doses in 16 to 17-year-olds are important ways to increase our protection against Covid-19 infection and severe disease. These vaccinations will also help extend our protection into 2022.
“If you are eligible, please make sure to have these vaccines and keep yourselves protected as we head into winter.”
Figures from Israel show the booster programme could prevent Covid-19 deaths throughout Christmas and beyond, Prof Van-Tam said.
Among the over-60s who have received a booster jab, there has been “a tenfold reduction against all Covid infections, an 18.7-fold reduction against hospitalisations, and a 14.7-fold reduction against mortality, and that’s on top of the initial course of Pfizer.
“So I believe therefore that if the booster programme is successful, and with very high uptake, we can massively reduce the worry about hospitalisation and death due to Covid at Christmas, and for the rest of this winter.”
However, Prof Van-Tam said that “everyone has a key role to play” in minimising disruption from Covid in the coming months.
“Wear face coverings in crowded places if it is practical to do so, increase indoor ventilation whenever you can, make sure you are vaccinated and, like any medicine, make sure you finish the course,” he said.
Dr June Raine, chief executive of the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said there has not been any safety concerns regarding the rollout of booster jabs.
“We also welcome the recommendation for 16 to 17-year-olds to come forward and have a second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
“We ensure all suspected reports are carefully followed up. The Expert Working Group of the Commission on Human Medicines has confirmed that reports of suspected myocarditis (heart inflammation) following Covid-19 vaccines are extremely rare and that the balance of risks and benefits overall remains favourable.”
Myocarditis in younger male recipients of the Pfizer vaccine has been reported more frequently after the second dose, compared to after the first. However, in countries such as Canada and the UK, where a longer interval between the first and second jab is enforced, the rates of myocarditis have been lower compared to countries sticking to the three-week gap.