The health and social care secretary has said he is ‘confident’ that Covid booster jabs will start ‘sometime’ in September for the ‘most vulnerable’, after the timing and scope of the campaign came into question.
However, the Government is still awaiting final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) on when the programme will start and who exactly will be prioritised.
The JCVI laid out interim advice on the order of priority for groups of people receiving their third vaccine dose in June, with nurses among the top priority groups.
The NHS is mobilising for the two-stage booster Covid programme to begin from 6 September, alongside flu vaccinations, however the JCVI warned in June that its final advice ‘may change substantially’.
The health and social care secretary confirmed that booster jabs for the ‘most vulnerable cohorts’ will start ‘sometime in September’, once the Government has received final advice from the JCVI.
Speaking to reporters on a visit to open a hospital in Carlisle, Sajid Javid said: ‘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: ‘So we’re waiting for their final opinion and, looking at everything and the timing of that, I’m confident that we can start in September when we will start with the most vulnerable cohorts and start offering that third jab.’
It follows reports, including in the Guardian, that the programme was ‘unlikely’ to begin in early September due to outstanding JCVI concerns that significantly more work is needed before booster jabs can be rolled out.
Responding to these reports, Mr Javid said: ‘I don’t think the JCVI is concerned about the progress because the JCVI is a really important part of delivering the booster scheme.
‘It’s only with their expert advice that the Government would want to continue with their plans.’
He added: ‘I don’t want to prejudge what they’re going to say but, based on their interim advice, I think that we can be confident that we will start a booster scheme next month.’
Meanwhile, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and JCVI member Professor Adam Finn has said that there is ‘enough evidence’ to back a booster programme for those at ‘highest risk’, but that a wider rollout may have a ‘very marginal benefit’.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, he said: ‘I think we’ll be imminently deciding that there will be some people who will need a third dose – particularly people who we know are very unlikely to be well-protected by those first two doses.
‘But I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme.’
He added that trying to prevent transmission via booster vaccination may be ‘out of reach’ and that it is ‘hard to predict’ whether rollout will soon be expanded to the routine vaccination of 12-15 year-olds due to ongoing safety concerns.
Interim JCVI guidance said over-50s should be offered Covid boosters at the same time as a flu jab, while those who got their initial Covid jabs when the roll-out began last December would be first on the list again – including GPs.
It comes as a UK study has found that the Astra Zeneca Covid vaccine is ‘as effective’ as the Pfizer jab after 4-5 months but that double-dose efficacy decreases quicker for the Pfizer vaccine.
Trial results from earlier this month showed Moderna’s Covid-19 vaccine is still 93% effective six months after the second dose is given.
Germany announced this month that it would give a booster mRNA (Pfizer or Moderna) vaccine to anyone who was double-vaccinated with the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vector vaccines.
And an Israeli study – where boosters began last month and have today been expanded to include the over-40s – has suggested that a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine is 86% effective in people aged over 60.
US health officials declared plans this week for everyone to get a third jab eight months after their second and France has also announced a booster drive.