Millions of over-50s could be offered Covid boosters this autumn, as Boris Johnson hailed Britain’s vaccine rollout as key to “restoring our liberties in full”.
Fourth jabs will start being offered to those aged 75 and over from next month, with a further rollout of vaccines expected later this year, when the programme may be much more widely extended.
Announcing the end of legal requirements to self-isolate from Thursday and a major scaling back of free testing from April, Mr Johnson praised “the extraordinary success” of the vaccine rollout.
He told a Downing Street press conference: “Today is not the day we can declare victory over Covid, because this virus is not going away. But it is the day when all the efforts of the last two years finally enable us to protect ourselves whilst restoring our liberties in full.
“After two of the darkest, grimmest years in our peacetime history, I do believe this is a moment of pride for our nation.”
The Government’s scientific advisers on Monday said an “extra spring dose” will be advised for around eight million elderly and vulnerable people, with the rollout starting within weeks.
The groups are also likely to be offered further doses in the autumn, the Joint Committee on Vaccine and Immunisation (JCVI) said, in a programme which could be extended far more widely – potentially to cover all over-50s.
Mr Johnson set out the strategy for “living with Covid” after his Cabinet meeting was delayed by rows between Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, over funding.
Sajid Javid had been pushing for more than £5 billion to maintain more free testing – including regular tests for asymptomatic NHS staff – but lost the argument, with the Department of Health told funds for remaining tests would come out of its existing budget.
At the Downing Street press conference, Sir Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, the Chief Scientific Adviser, repeatedly expressed concern about who will be eligible for free tests.
The Government has said the most vulnerable groups will still be able to access free tests, with suggestions that all over-80s would fall in this group.
Sir Patrick said getting the definition right was “critical”, with Sir Chris saying a “key decision” was yet to be made to ensure that those who could benefit from antiviral medicine were able to get tests.
But on Monday night Mr Johnson insisted people should not think there was a “division between gung-ho politicians and cautious, anxious scientists”.
He said Britain needed to face the fact that there “could be, likely will be, another variant that will cause us trouble”, adding that “the sun is shining but we’re keeping our umbrella” in the fight against the virus, with surveillance to spot new variants and act on emerging trends.
Sir Chris acknowledged that deaths were at slightly lower than average levels, pointing out that far higher numbers were now dying from causes other than Covid. He highlighted “striking” figures showing the impact of vaccines on hospitalisation rates.
On Monday, the JCVI said it had advised ministers that a wider booster campaign in the autumn is “very likely” to be recommended. It may be run along the lines of the annual flu jab programme, which is aimed at around half the population, including everyone over 50.
Officials said no decision had yet been taken on the size of any autumn rollout.
The vaccine programme will see fourth jabs offered to those aged 75 and over and to care home residents from next month – around six months after their booster – with GPs and pharmacists involved in the rollout.
People over 12 who are immunosuppressed will also be offered an extra jab, which for many will be their fifth dose. Over-18s will be offered the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines, while those 12 to 18 will be offered Pfizer.
The boosts are being offered as a “precautionary” measure amid concern that immunity wanes more quickly in older and vulnerable groups.
Booster jabs began to be rolled out in September, meaning it is now around five months since the programme began.
Officials said the committee has provided interim advice to ministers on the rollout of jabs this autumn. It says “a further booster … is likely to be advised for people who are at higher risk of severe Covid-19”.
Scientists said it was too early to set out precise details of what that programme may look like, but added that it was likely to cover a wider group.
Prof Wei Shen Lim, the JCVI chairman of Covid vaccination, said: “Last year’s booster vaccination programme has so far provided excellent protection against severe Covid-19.
“To maintain high levels of protection for the most vulnerable individuals in the population, an extra spring dose of vaccine is advised ahead of an expected autumn booster programme.
“The JCVI will continue its rolling review of the vaccination programme and the epidemiological situation, particularly in relation to the timing and value of doses for less vulnerable older adults and those in clinical risk groups ahead of autumn.”
Mr Javid said Britain’s vaccine rollout had made it “the freest country in Europe”, adding that had asked the NHS to plan a further rollout of jabs in the spring following the new advice.
The latest data on those aged 75 and over shows that booster jabs are 93 per cent effective against hospitalisation, and only fall to 88 per cent at 10 weeks.
It follows much debate about how future rollouts of jabs should be targeted. Sir Andrew Pollard, the chairman of the JCVI, last month told The Telegraph: “We can’t vaccinate the planet every four to six months. It’s not sustainable or affordable. In the future, we need to target the vulnerable.”