A mass booster jab campaign for the over-50s is now unlikely to begin next month, it emerged yesterday.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said vulnerable adults with suppressed immune systems will still receive third doses.
But officials are dithering over a broader booster programme for all over-50s.
Earlier in the summer, the Government drew up plans for the NHS to re-vaccinate 32million people from September 6.
The Joint Committee of Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the Government, met yesterday to review evidence on booster jabs but failed to come to a decision. Sources stressed that ‘nothing is off the table’ and their recommendation could take weeks.
Mr Javid said last night: ‘We are going to have a booster scheme, it will start sometime in September.
‘I couldn’t tell you exactly when because before we start it, as people would expect, we need to get the final advice from our group of experts, our independent scientific and medical advisers – the JCVI.’
He added: I’m confident that we can start in September when we will start with the most vulnerable cohorts.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said vulnerable adults with suppressed immune systems will still receive third doses
The NHS had been instructed to administer top-up doses at the same time as the flu jab, with one shot given in each arm.
The boosters will almost certainly be offered to the 3.7million Britons classified as ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’, with diseases such as cancer.
Older adults could also be offered third injections, as evidence shows their immunity wanes more quickly than younger adults. However, experts on the JCVI want more time to review evidence before deciding if a mass programme is necessary.
They are also uncertain on ‘mixing and matching’ jabs – offering a different vaccine to the first two doses.
Professor Adam Finn, who sits on the JCVI, said experts were ‘trying to identify the people who are really at risk and really need that third dose’.
He told the BBC yesterday that it was unclear if a third dose would make much difference to other groups.
The JCVI has previously been criticised for deciding against vaccinating teenagers before making a U-turn, putting the UK behind many nations.
Tottenham Hotspur Stadium hosted its third mass COVID-19 vaccination clinic today, in partnership with the NHS and Haringey Council
The US and Israel have already announced booster schemes in a bid to halt the spread of the Delta variant.
Yesterday, US President Joe Biden said he and his wife will get third jabs after American health officials said it was ‘very clear’ that protection wanes over time. An Oxford University study of 700,000 Britons published online yesterday came to the same conclusion.
Results showed that two weeks after the second Pfizer dose, people are 85 per cent protected against infection, but this falls to 75 per cent after three months.
Protection from the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab fell from 68 per cent to 61 per cent.
Meanwhile, data from the Office for National Statistics yesterday showed that antibody levels may be dropping among older groups, who were the first to be vaccinated.
But any booster programme will remain controversial while poorer countries struggle to get their hands on first doses.
Dr Michael Ryan of the World Health Organisation said: ‘We’re planning to hand out extra life jackets to people who already have life jackets, while we’re leaving other people to drown without a single life jacket.’
From Israeli scientist on front line of new surge: Don’t make our costly mistake, Britain
Commentary by Professor Eran Segal
There is no question that Israel – the country that led the way with a Covid vaccine roll out for its nine million population – is now experiencing a fourth wave of infections.
And, as is the case in several other countries such as France and Iran, it is deadlier than anyone predicted.
We are seeing the effectiveness of the double Pfizer/BioNTech jab – the vaccine most widely used in my country – waning six months after the second jabs were administered.
That fact, and the spread of the much more infectious Delta variant, is the reason for a sharp rise in infections and hospitalisations especially among the elderly and vulnerable.
Israel is responding with a vigorous programme of booster jabs and I believe our experience may have several implications for Britain and other countries.
My message is two-fold. Firstly, countries must redouble their efforts to persuade vaccine-refuseniks to get their inoculations. Secondly, a policy of booster jabs must be considered for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions. It would be wise to act now to prevent a deadly wave in the UK.
Many scientists and clinicians in Israel were calling for renewed public efforts to persuade the ‘vaccine-resistant’ in the population to have the jab weeks ago. This could have prevented our fourth wave but unfortunately it did not happen.
Now infection rates are rapidly climbing towards the peak last seen in January. At the worst point of the third wave, we were seeing up to 10,000 new cases a day. On Monday there were nearly 9,000. Tragically, that is causing an increasing number of deaths.
Just a few months ago, we were cautiously hopeful that our stringent policy of vaccination was going to beat the virus. But now we are seeing that the combination of a highly transmittable variant, reduced vaccine effectiveness and the 15 per cent of those eligible for the vaccine who remain unvaccinated has changed the course of the pandemic.
We’re only just waking up to these consequences in Israel where, as the first country in the world to vaccinate most of our population, we are also the first to see the impact of the waning effect. Other nations have to take notice and act now.
There’s another unknown in the mix. When we began vaccinating, the Delta variant had not yet surfaced.
Other variants are constantly evolving around the world. What we have yet to find out is whether there will be even more aggressive new variants. That’s the bad news. But the situation is far from hopeless. After a slow start, Israel’s booster jab programme is now operating at maximum capacity. Within two weeks, all the over-60s and over-50s will have been offered the booster.
I’m cautiously hopeful by the time you read this, almost all the over-40s will have been be offered it too.
However, this is not a clinical trial under controlled conditions. It is happening in the real world which means there could be many other factors at play.
Even so, there is growing confidence that the boosters are already having a positive effect. Some commentators are worrying that we will be locked into a cycle of top-up jabs for years to come but that might not be the case: it could be that the immunity effect is cumulative and lasts longer with each new vaccination.
We still don’t know and will need more time. One thing is certain: even if booster jabs are good, first vaccinations are better – both for the individual and for the country, since they increase a person’s immunity from zero to being full vaccinated.
In Israel, there are 1.1million people aged 12 and over who have not been vaccinated. More than half of them are under 30.
I don’t believe that all these people are committed anti-vaxxers. Most just haven’t bothered. But that attitude is hitting the whole country hard now and we must redouble efforts to encourage people to accept their responsibility and get jabbed.
Many people are worried that another lockdown is coming. While it is too early to tell, I believe that, thanks to the boosters, we should be over the worst by mid-September and without a lockdown… though this is not yet certain.
What is certain is that Britain has a chance to learn from our mistakes and avoid the pain of a fourth wave. And the time to start a campaign of booster jabs may be now.
n ERAN SEGAL is a professor at the Weizmann Institute of Science and an advisor to the Israeli government in its response to the pandemic.