Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he is “confident” a coronavirus booster campaign can start next month, after a report that experts want more time to consider whether they are needed.
NHS plans are in place to enable a rollout of third doses of Covid-19 jabs from September 6 alongside flu vaccines, but no official decision has been taken yet.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) met on Thursday and had been expected to discuss the potential for boosters for people who might “really need” another jab.
Committee member Professor Adam Finn said a decision is imminent that those who are “very unlikely to be well protected by those first two doses” will need a third one.
But officials told the PA news agency that boosters had not been discussed at the meeting, although they would not confirm what was spoken about.
The Guardian reported an unnamed source as saying planning for boosters did not mean it would definitely happen.
They quoted the person as saying: “This is going to take more time and research. What we don’t want to do is make promises which then disappoint people.”
On a visit to open a hospital in Carlisle, Mr Javid told reporters: “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: “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.”
Asked about a booster campaign, Prof Finn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there is “enough evidence” and the committee will 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”.
He added: “But I think we do need more evidence before we can make a firm decision on a much broader booster programme.”
His comments on a wider rollout were echoed by another Government adviser, Professor Peter Openshaw, who said further evidence is needed on any benefits booster jabs might bring.
Prof Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the Government, also said high case numbers are “very worrying” and warned that “we just don’t really know what’s going to happen” as winter approaches.
He told Times Radio: “I think we’re all really anxious about what’s going to happen once we return to normality.”
He added: “We’re going into the winter with really very high levels of infection out there in the community and we just don’t really know what’s going to happen.”
A further 113 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Thursday, and there were a further 36,572 lab-confirmed cases of the virus in the UK, the Government said.
Prof Openshaw said he believes the Government would be “loath” to bring back restrictions for winter, and said the issue is one of “increasing political polarisation”, after scenes in Parliament showed a clear divide in opposition MPs wearing masks and most Conservatives not doing so.
The number of people testing positive for Covid-19 in England has risen, after a two-week period which had seen figures fall.
The latest Test and Trace statistics showed 190,508 people tested positive for Covid-19 at least once in the week to August 11, up 6% on the previous week.
It comes as preliminary research suggests two doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine appears to have greater effectiveness initially against new Covid-19 infections associated with the Delta variant when compared with the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab, but its efficacy also declines faster.
The findings, which have not yet been peer reviewed, also suggest that those infected with the Delta variant after their second jab had similar peak levels of virus to unvaccinated people.
Prof Finn, who is a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said the main takeaway from the study, by scientists from the University of Oxford, is that protection from vaccines is “excellent” but that their success in stopping transmission is not as good as they had wished.
Prof Finn said it is “hard to predict” whether the general rollout of first and second doses will be extended to 12 to 15-year-olds, saying that because children rarely become seriously ill with the virus it could be “a very marginal decision that they will benefit by being immunised”.
As for vaccinating children to protect the more vulnerable, such as grandparents, he said it is “a tricky one” to decide as it is a “much more comfortable” and “clear cut” approach to immunise people where they themselves benefit.