By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will begin a broad-based COVID-19 vaccine booster programme for older and more vulnerable people soon as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government relies on vaccines rather than further lockdowns to navigate a “bumpy” winter.
British officials said COVID-19 vaccines had saved more than 112,000 lives and averted 24 million infections as they proposed a third shot for frontline health workers and those aged over 50 or clinically vulnerable, starting with people most at risk.
Johnson hopes that the booster programme, which is being undertaken on a precautionary basis without firm evidence about its likely impact, will mean that hospitals can bear the burden of all winter infections without the need for another lockdown.
But health minister Sajid Javid said a “Plan B”, involving mandatory vaccine certificates in some settings, mandatory mask wearing and asking people to work from home, was being held in reserve. Vaccinations for health workers were likely to be made compulsory, he said.
“Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term,” Javid, who sets policy in England, told parliament, saying the programme would begin next week and that the plan B would be implemented only if required.
The government’s 30-page winter strategy cautioned that the plan B could be implemented at short notice.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed Scotland would also pursue a booster campaign as recommended by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The JCVI proposed the booster be given six months after a second shot, after evidence of a small decline in vaccine effectiveness against hospitalisation in older people from a little over 90% to a little under 90% over 5-6 months.
British officials said protection from two doses of vaccine beyond 6 months was uncertain and that boosters would prevent illness and deaths from COVID-19 over the winter, but did not say whether the extra shots would lower transmission rates.
“We’re not past the pandemic. We know this winter could quite possibly be bumpy at times… It’s better to be pre-emptive and to be prepared and plan for the worst,” England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan Van-Tam told reporters.
“The booster programme will make a very substantial impact on keeping the lid on things COVID-wise in terms of hospitalisations and deaths and keeping pressure off the NHS (National Health Service) this winter.”
WITHOUT SIGNIFICANT RESTRICTIONS
Britain has recorded 134,000 COVID-19 deaths among its 67 million people. So far 44 million people have had two vaccine doses, 81 percent of those aged over 16. On Monday, the government said those aged 12 to 15 would also be offered shots.
Britain is currently recording the second highest number of new infections after the United States, which also plans booster shots along with Israel, Ireland and Italy.
Johnson scrapped the last coronavirus restrictions in England in July with the aim of a “return to normal”.
“The pandemic is far from over, but thanks to our phenomenal vaccine programme, new treatments and testing we are able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms,” Johnson said this week.
The JCVI said its preference was that the Pfizer vaccine was used for the booster dose, or alternatively a half-dose of a Moderna shot.
Britain ordered 60 million additional Pfizer doses for the booster programme in April. Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair for COVID-19 immunisation on the JCVI, said Pfizer booster shots had performed well against the now-dominant Delta variant.
Lim said the JCVI’s advice for a booster dose did not imply that there would be a requirement for a shot every six months and said younger people may not need an early booster dose.
The British recommendation comes after some leading scientists, including from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and World Health Organisation, wrote in Monday’s Lancet medical journal that COVID boosters were not yet needed https://www.reuters.com/world/us/covid-19-vaccine-boosters-not-widely-needed-top-fda-who-scientists-say-2021-09-13 for the general population.
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Philippa Fletcher)