The scientist whose modelling was instrumental to the UK going into its first lockdown has backed vaccinating teenagers as a priority.
Prof Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme levels of immunity in the UK were falling behind some European countries that had inoculated teenagers faster than us.
His comments came as the prime minister was expected to address the country on Tuesday to underline how vaccinations would be a central part of the response to coronavirus in the coming months.
The UK’s chief medical officers are also drawing up advice to government on whether children aged 12 to 15 should be vaccinated, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said the margin of benefit from vaccinating healthy children was too small to say they should receive a jab.
Asked if vaccinating teenagers was the way forward for boosting immunity levels in the UK, Ferguson said: “That’s the initial priority, just because it’s going to take six to eight weeks to starting before those teenagers have had two doses.”
He told Today experts were seeing “slow increases in case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths” and he was supportive of booster shots.
He said in the absence of social distancing measures, which he agreed with, “we are reliant on immunity building up in the population”.
He added: “That happens two ways – one through vaccination, and one through people getting infected and so the faster we can roll out additional vaccination, the better in terms of stopping people getting severely ill but also in reducing transmission.”
He said the UK had been leading in Europe on vaccination until recently but other countries such as Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Ireland “have got higher vaccination levels than us and that’s largely because they have rolled out vaccination of 12- to 15-year-olds faster than us.
“They also vaccinated more recently, and we know now that vaccine effectiveness decays over time, we always expected that, and so they have more immunity in the population,” he continued.
“They also principally used the Pfizer vaccine which against Delta is somewhat more effective than the AstraZeneca vaccine, so there are a set of countries in Europe with considerably more population immunity than us and I think if we want to stop the risk of a large autumn and winter wave we need to boost immunity in the population.”
Government data up to 11 September shows that of the 92,414,463 Covid jabs given in the UK, 48,422,588 were first doses, a rise of 27,229 on the previous day. The number of second doses was 43,991,875, an increase of 96,435.