Only 1.6million Britons are currently eligible for Covid booster vaccines, official data suggests as No10 gets set to kick off the top-up drive next week.
Health chiefs yesterday unveiled plans to offer a third dose to 32million over-50s, frontline NHS workers and over-16s considered to be extremely vulnerable.
People will only be invited for a booster six months after getting their second jab because that appears to be the ‘sweet spot’, according to officials who signed off on the move due to waning immunity.
But Department of Health figures show only 1.6million people in the UK, mainly care home residents and frontline health workers, were fully vaccinated by March 15.
The UK didn’t breach the 30million mark until June, meaning the campaign won’t be open to millions of vulnerable adults until much closer to Christmas.
Experts told MailOnline the decision to delay boosters by six months should not be a cause for concern because the gap means people are only given a top-up dose as their immunity starts to wane.
But they warned it could be a problem for a ‘small number’ of older and vulnerable people whose immunity drops faster than expected.
Official figures show only 1.6million people in the UK received their second jab six months ago, on March 15. And the first 32million people were not fully immunised until June 24. However, this figure will include hundreds of thousands of under-50s, as uptake is no 100 per cent among those who are eligible for third doses. Boosters have to be given at least six months after the second dose, meaning the majority in the group may not be jabbed until November and December
The programme will be rolled out to the same priority groups as previously (the priority list in the first phase of the vaccine drive which began in December). This means care home residents, health and social care workers, people aged over 50, those aged 16 to 49 years with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe Covid, adult carers, and adult household contacts of immunosuppressed individuals will be prioritised
Booster doses of the Pfizer jab, or a half dose of Moderna, will be administered to those eligible from next week, regardless of which jab they initially received.
For those who cannot get either of those two mRNA jabs, such as due to an allergy, they will be given a dose of AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
The jabs will be dished out through vaccination centres, primary care networks and pharmacies and can be given at the same time as annual flu jabs.
Department of Health bosses said the booster campaign will ‘ensure the protection vaccines provide for those most at risk of severe illness from Covid will be maintained over the winter months’.
It is the first phase of the Government’s winter plan to avoid another lockdown. If hospitalisations rise quickly, ministers have warned they could be forced to reintroduce face masks and work from home guidance.
The Prime Minister was told it is better to act early, rather than dithering and having to go harder to fight off any surge later this year.
Government statistics show the UK hit 10million second vaccinations on April 18, meaning the third dose rollout will not be open to a third of those eligible until mid-October.
Doomster advisors warn of ANOTHER winter lockdown and 7,000 hospital admissions a DAY within weeks
Boris Johnson told weary Britons he could not rule out another winter lockdown yesterday as his doom-mongering advisors warned of a potential seven-fold increase in hospitalisations within weeks, despite cases currently remaining static.
Experts have told the PM he must be prepared to ‘go hard, go early’ if cases start to tick up, bringing back rules such as working from home with as little as a week’s notice.
Mr Johnson said compulsory masks and vaccine passports could still be rapidly imposed if the jab programme fails to hold the virus at bay.
The PM claimed the ‘smaller changes’ in a new ‘Plan B’ should mean ‘we don’t need to go back to the lockdowns of the past’.
But he refused to rule one out, saying he would do whatever was necessary to ‘prevent the overwhelming of the NHS’.
It comes as the Government’s scientific advisers warned the number of patients being admitted to hospital with Covid could rise to 7,000 a day within weeks.
Despite the recent flattening off in cases and little sign of a post-summer surge, modellers from a Sage sub-committee claimed daily hospitalisations could reach almost double their January peak.
The predicted total is worse than last year and seven times that of the latest figures – which show the number admitted in England was just 1,009.
Yet the Sage modellers called on ministers to be prepared to abandon their ‘light-touch’ measures and bring in fresh curbs soon or risk a major increase in cases and hospitalisations, due to children returning to school and workers going back to the office.
And it took until June 24 to administer 32million second doses, meaning those with waning immunity could be heading into the Christmas season with low levels of protection.
But that figure includes hundred of thousands of under-50s, given that uptake for the jab has never been 100 per cent in any of the most vulnerable groups.
NHS figures suggest there are still around half a million over-50s who have yet to have their first jab, and up to 1.1million who haven’t had their second.
Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline he does not see the small numbers immediately eligible for boosters as a problem.
He said: ‘Put simply, we don’t know how this will play out over the winter and it’s worth pointing out that the annual flu numbers are worse in January and February, so it could be the same with Covid.
‘It’s important not to give boosters too early as their effectiveness may well wane over time too.
‘Data seems to indicate that immunity drops off quickest in the most elderly, who were vaccinated first. Given as these should be boosted first, this problem should be mitigated.
‘There may however be a small number of people in their 50s and 60s whose immunity drops more quickly than the average, so what you suggest could be a problem for these people.
‘However, there’s no realistic way of knowing who these people are in such a large population.’
Professor Saul Faust, an infectious disease expert at the University of Southampton, told MailOnline people having to wait until winter to get a booster is ‘not concerning’ because immunity lasts six months after two doses.
He said the rollout will be staggered as people become eligible at six months and means the NHS is able to cope with demand.
‘Some people will need to go for flu vaccines separately from Covid vaccines though, which the NHS will be taking account of,’ Professor Faust added.
Dr Doug Brown, chief executive at the British Society of Immunology, told MailOnline: ‘Receiving two vaccinations against Covid has been show to be highly effective at preventing severe disease, hospitalisation and death as well as generating an effective immune response that does provide this protection in the long term.
‘We don’t yet know exactly how long immunity will last, which is why the government’s decision to offer booster doses to the most vulnerable is a welcome move which will help us be prepared for the worst this winter.
‘With the third dose being offered six months after the second, studies have shown that we can be confident that for those six months people will have protection during that period from their initial vaccinations with the third dose providing an additional boost to the immune system.
‘In addition to boosters, we must not take our foot off the gas and continue to make every effort to reach people who have not had their first doses of the vaccine and encourage them to come forward for a Covid vaccination.
‘Vaccination is our only way out of this pandemic.’
Earlier this month, half a million severely immunosuppressed people, who are most at-risk from Covid and were unable to mount a full response to the vaccine, were invited to get a third dose.
The JCVI said third dose should be given to them at least eight weeks after the second dose ‘as a guide’ but the decision on the timing should be made by their doctor.
The decision to offer people with a weak immune system an extra dose was made after a study found they tended to have lower antibody levels, suggesting they had a weaker response to the jabs.
The booster decision comes as Covid cases are falling in the UK, but hospitalisations and deaths are on the rise
Professor Wei Shen Lim, head of the JCVI’s Covid vaccine unit, said the recommendation of at least a six-month gap between the second jab and a booster shot was an attempt to find an immunity ‘sweet spot’.
‘We want to suggest a six-month limit as a lower limit because we don’t want people to feel they need to rush to have this booster dose,’ he told a Downing Street press conference yesterday.
‘Getting a booster dose too early might mean getting a dose when they don’t actually need to have vaccination because they still have a high level of protection.
‘And, as we have seen with the first and second dose, it may be that a longer interval to the third booster dose may actually be beneficial in the longer term.
‘On the other hand, we don’t want to wait too long before offering a booster dose, so trying to find a sweet spot between going too soon and going too late we are suggesting that the booster dose is given no earlier than six months after the second dose.’
He added: ‘Hopefully, this will mean that the levels of protection people have will be highest during the coldest months of the winter.’
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, called on all over-50s to get their booster jabs, saying they will make a ‘very substantial impact’ on tackling Covid over the coming year.
He said: ‘I think 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 this winter.
‘We want to live our lives as normally as possible from now on and we want a normal winter life too. A high uptake of the booster programme is going to give us a much increased chance of doing that in my view.’
The Covid vaccines have so far prevented 24million Covid cases and 112,000 deaths, according to official estimates.
The decision on boosters comes as the NHS is expected to face a challenging winter, as people have usually low levels of immunity to flu and other respiratory viruses, which they did not catch last year due to Covid restrictions like social distancing and face masks.
And Covid cases are expected to surge in the colder months, as people move away from socialising outdoors to indoors and return to offices.
What is the booster, when will I get mine, and what version will it be? As the over-50s and vulnerable people are set to receive a Covid vaccine top-up before Christmas, we answer the vital questions
What is a booster jab?
It is a third dose of coronavirus vaccine intended to give greater and longer-lasting protection than the first two.
A study by Public Health England found immunity starts to wane around 20 weeks after receiving the second dose, particularly in the elderly.
This means people gradually become more likely to catch the virus, end up in hospital with severe disease or die.
A trial called CovBoost, which explored the impact of giving a third dose, found it increased antibody levels beyond that achieved with two jabs.
A study by Public Health England found immunity starts to wane around 20 weeks after receiving the second dose, particularly in the elderly. This means people gradually become more likely to catch the virus, end up in hospital with severe disease or die (stock image)
Who will get one?
Around 32million people in the UK will initially be offered it.
They include everyone in priority groups one to nine in the initial vaccine rollout.
This includes those aged at least 50, people living and working in elderly care homes, and frontline health and social care workers. All those aged 16 to 49 with underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe Covid also qualify, as will adult household contacts of those with suppressed immune systems.
When will I get mine?
People should wait at least six months after their second dose, according to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The NHS will start inviting people this week – vaccinations begin next week. Health officials hope to have offered a booster jab to all those eligible before Christmas.
The NHS will start inviting people this week – vaccinations begin next week. Health officials hope to have offered a booster jab to all those eligible before Christmas (stock image)
Which version will I get?
The JCVI has recommended the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, regardless of the one people received for their first and second doses.
A half dose of Moderna may also be used as a booster but the AstraZeneca/Oxford jab will only be used if patients are allergic to the others.
All three have been approved for use by the medical regulator, the MHRA, and are considered safe and effective.
Some vaccination centres or GP surgeries may only offer one type of jab, meaning people will not get to choose.
Will I still get my flu jab?
The NHS is embarking on its biggest ever flu vaccination programme and wants those eligible to have both jabs.
The MHRA has approved the use of the Covid and flu vaccines at the same time, saying this does not affect their safety or effectiveness.
It is possible one will be given in each arm, but it is likely many people will receive them on different days as they may need the flu jab before it’s their turn to have the Covid booster.