Booster jabs could be given to under 40s and the time between doses may be reduced to speed out the vaccine rollout, it has been confirmed as Boris Johnson announced a crackdown to fight the Omicron variant of Covid-19.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference today, the Prime Minister said it is not known how the vaccines will fare against the new super-mutant strain amid fears that the variant may make jabs 40 per cent less effective.
Mr Johnson, 57, confirmed that the Government plans to push forward with the booster campaign and plan to dole out six million jabs in England across the next three weeks.
He suggested that booster jabs, which are currently only available to over-40s, will be made available to more age groups while the six-month period in between doses could also be reduced to speed up the rollout.
Mr Johnson also announced that face masks will be compulsory on public transport and in shops, while fully vaccinated arrivals to the UK will be required to self-isolate until they get a negative test, and all contacts of people infected with the Omicron mutation must stay at home for 10 days.
Hours earlier, health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed that two people tested positive with the new variant in Essex and Nottingham. The cases are linked and related to travel from southern Africa.
Boris Johnson, 57, confirmed that the Government plans to push forward with the booster campaign and plan to dole out six million jabs in England across the next three weeks
Announcing a string of tightened restrictions at the press conference, Mr Johnson said: ‘We need to bolster our protections against this new variant.
‘We don’t yet exactly know how effective our vaccines will be against Omicron but we have good reasons for believing they will provide at least some measure of protection.
‘If you’re boosted, your response is likely to be stronger so it’s more vital than ever that people get their jabs and we get those boosters into arms as fast as possible.
‘From today we’re going to boost the booster campaign, we’re already planning to do six million jabs in England alone over the next three weeks and now we’re looking to go further.’
He also said that the booster jabs could be rolled out to under-40s and offered to people sooner than six months after their second jab to ‘buy time’ for scientists and take the strain off the NHS.
He added: ‘We need to buy time for our scientists to understand exactly what we’re dealing with. And for us to get more people vaccinated and above all, to get more people boosted as well as to help our NHS prepare in what is already a challenging winter.’
The Prime Minister said the ‘temporary and precautionary’ measures will be reviewed in three weeks, while the Government’s vaccine experts will be tasked with considering whether to extend booster jabs to more age groups.
Professor Chris Whitty said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) need to decide whether to extend the booster vaccine down to adults age 18, and whether a second dose should be offered to children aged 12-15 who decided with their families to get the first dose of the vaccine.
The Prime Minister suggested that booster jabs, which are currently only available to over-40s, will be made available to more age groups to fight the Omicron variant (file image)
Mr Whitty also said it is not yet clear how effective the vaccine will be as protection against the variant – but said those who are vaccinated or receive the booster jab will be less likely to become seriously ill.
He warned the spread of the Omicron variant across the world over the next few days was ‘inevitable’ but added the majority of cases in the UK remain to be of the Delta variant.
Meanwhile, Sir Patrick Vallance said vaccine makers are already looking at how they can make the jabs more effective against emerging variants.
The Chief Scientific Adviser confirmed a vaccine designed to specifically target the Omicron variant could be created in ‘about 100 days’.
He told the Downing Street press conference: ‘I think it’s important to recognise there are three ways in which this can be done and the companies are thinking about this.
‘The first is the boosters will give high enough antibody coverage that actually that’s going to be enough to cover this.
‘That’s the first situation and needs to be tested. But that looks like something that anyway is going to give protection, whether there’s more needed on top of that we’ll have to see.
‘The second is that vaccine manufacturers have been producing broader vaccines anyway to get broader coverage across potential new variants. So those are in the pipeline.
‘Then a couple of companies have already said they could tweak their existing vaccines and get a new vaccine out specifically against this in about 100 days.
‘Those are the sort of three scenarios, clearly the one which is the one to really go for now is boost, because it is the case that as you keep boosting the vaccine, you get slightly broader coverage because the immune system knows it needs to get broader.
Cases of Omicron have already been picked up in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium. It is not yet known whether the variant arrived in the Netherlands yesterday but Dutch authorities are sequencing passengers’ tests
Britain has sequenced two cases of the Omicron variant in Nottingham and Chelmsford, Sajid Javid said today
‘Because the antibody levels are so high, it actually causes enough coverage of other variants to be effective.’
Another 39,567 Covid cases and 131 deaths were recorded in the UK today. Department of Health officials posted nearly 40,000 daily infections – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 last Saturday – while the number of people who have died 28 days after testing positive for Covid has also fallen by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week.
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant. The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.
Professor Whitty made a Christmas plea for the country to ‘raise a glass’ to the scientists who have produced the vaccines.
He said: ‘If I can make one Christmas plea? It would be that when people raise their glasses this Christmas, they do so to the extraordinary scientists who produce the vaccines, the diagnostics, the drugs which will allow this Christmas, if possible, to be in a very different place to what it would have been without them.’
Asked about this year’s festivities, the Prime Minister said: ‘We continue to be in a strong position largely thanks to the speed of the vaccine rollout, another booster rollout, and I think I’m going to stick with the formula I’ve used before, which is I’m pretty confident to absolutely confident this Christmas will be considerably better than last Christmas, if that will do for the time being on that one.’
Last year, people in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland were allowed to form a Christmas bubble with up to three households, and meet up from December 23 to 27, while in Wales it was two households.
The bubble had to be exclusive, meaning people could not swap between them, and pubs and restaurants were closed on the day.
The Welsh Government has confirmed it will introduce the same measures on international travel as announced by the prime minister, saying it had warned the UK Government of the dangers of removing restrictions.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged people to ‘act as if [Omicron] is already here’ by wearing masks, washing their hands, getting vaccinated, and testing and said Holyrood would introduce new requirements for travellers.
It comes amid fears the new super-mutant strain makes jabs 40 per cent less effective while the World Health Organisation branded the so-called ‘Omicron’ mutation a ‘variant of concern’.
In an attempt to slow the spread, the Prime Minister announced ‘temporary and precautionary’ measures to be reviewed in three weeks, alongside a ‘boost’ to the booster campaign.
Face coverings will become compulsory in shops and on public transport from ‘next week’, a statement from 10 Downing Street said.
The statement, which was issued following the Prime Minister’s press conference, said: ‘Face coverings will be made compulsory in shops and on public transport from next week. All hospitality settings will be exempt.’
Another 39,567 Covid cases and 131 deaths were recorded in the UK today. Department of Health officials posted nearly 40,000 daily infections – down 3.36 per cent from 40,941 last Saturday – while the number of people who have died 28 days after testing positive for Covid has also fallen by 12.7 per cent from 150 last week
Symptomatic Covid cases rose by nearly a fifth last week with more than 76,000 Britons falling ill each day, according to the ZOE symptom-tracking study
Mr Johnson said the exact rules on face coverings will be set out soon by Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
He also told a hastily arranged news conference the government would introduce a new testing regime. Omicron contacts will have to self-isolate and new arrivals will have to quarantine until they test negative for coronavirus, after two cases of the concerning new Omicron variant were detected in the UK.
Four more countries – Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia and Angola – will be added to the no-fly list on Sunday.
All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned yesterday amid growing international panic about the ‘variant of concern’, which scientists believe is more transmissible and has an increased risk of reinfection.
Mr Johnson admitted the latest restrictions on travel ‘sound tough’, but added: ‘That’s the way it’s got to be.’
But he said border measures can ‘only ever minimise and delay the arrival of a new variant rather than stop it all together’, so all contacts with a suspected case of the new variant will have to isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
‘We will also go further in asking all of you to help contain the spread of this variant by tightening up the rules on face coverings in shops and on public transport,’ Mr Johnson said.
Meanwhile chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said anti-viral pills for Covid-19, which were approved by the UK earlier this month, need a ‘rethink’ because of the new variant.
He said: ‘On the anti-virals, we are going to have to do a bit of a rethink on the basis of this new variant just to be confident we’ve got the right indications from it.
‘There’s a variety of ways you could use it in different ways, and what we need to make sure is whatever stock we’ve got of these, what appear to be highly effective drugs, that we use in the most effective way and for the right people.
Between November 11 and November 26, there were 48 direct flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow. During this period, there were two British Airways flights and one Virgin Atlantic flight per day. If each plane carried 300 passengers, that could mean there have been 14,400 arrivals from South Africa since Omicron was first detected
Office for National Statistics (ONS) data estimated around 862,300 people caught the virus on any given day in the week up to November 20, up 4.5 per cent on the 824,900 the week before
All flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were banned by Mr Javid yesterday
‘Where you are in the pathway right from the very beginning… working out their place, we do need to think through and I think we probably need to do a rethink of it just to make sure with the new variant we’re targeting in the right direction.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said ‘this is a real reminder that this pandemic is far from over’.
The detection of the cases came after Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, expressed optimism that existing vaccines will be effective at protecting against serious disease caused by the Omicron variant.
He also said it is ‘extremely unlikely’ it will cause a ‘reboot’ of the pandemic in Britain, as he offered tentative hope that the current jabs will still confer some degree of protection against the variant.
Sir Andrew, who also chairs the Government’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said a new vaccine could be developed ‘very rapidly’ if required because they now have a ‘well-oiled’ process.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that most of the mutations in Omicron are in similar regions seen in other variants, adding: ‘At least from a speculative point of view we have some optimism that the vaccine should still work against a new variant for serious disease, but really we need to wait several weeks to have that confirmed.
‘It’s extremely unlikely that a reboot of a pandemic in a vaccinated population like we saw last year is going to happen.’