The UK has expanded eligibility for Covid-19 booster shots to people in their 40s in a bid to stave off waning immunity and reduce the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed this winter.
Children aged 16 and 17 will also be eligible for a second dose of a Covid jab 12 weeks or more after their first inoculation, following new guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation announced on Monday.
The booster policy change follows the publication of new data from the Health Security Agency, which show that the risk of symptomatic Covid for booster shot recipients was cut by more than four-fifths compared with those who had only received two doses.
Sajid Javid, UK health secretary, confirmed that “all four parts of the UK” would follow the JCVI recommendations, adding: “I have asked the NHS to prepare to offer those eligible for a vaccine as soon as possible”.
Evidence provided to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) found that the protection against symptomatic Covid offered by all vaccines began to wane 10 weeks after the second dose, falling significantly after four to six months.
Protection against symptomatic infection was 93.1 per cent for people who originally received the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab and 94 per cent for BioNTech/Pfizer recipients a fortnight after the booster shot was administered.
The UK has relied on the Pfizer jab and half doses of the Moderna vaccine for its booster campaign. The JCVI, the government’s vaccine advisory group, is responsible for advising on eligibility and the timeline of the vaccine rollout in all four UK nations.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI’s Covid-19 committee, said the expansion of boosters to 40 to 49-year-olds and second doses to 16 and 17-year-olds were “important ways to increase our protection against Covid-19 infection and severe disease”.
“These vaccinations will also help extend our protection into 2022,” he added.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, said he had “full confidence” in the decision to expand the booster programme and administer second doses to 16 to 17-year-olds.
While he said that the booster programme was now moving at “considerable pace” and had “fundamentally changed the course of the pandemic”, Van-Tam stressed that the coming months would still prove difficult for the NHS.
“For Christmas and the winter period, we can expect respiratory viruses to be around and we’re particularly concerned that the flu will come back and add to our problems,” he said. “It could be quite a bumpy few months ahead.”
The announcement comes after four days of increasing infection rates in the UK. On Sunday, 36,517 new Covid cases were recorded, up about 20 per cent on the same day last week when about 30,305 people tested positive. Meanwhile, Covid-related hospital admissions and deaths have fallen in the latest week.
More than half a million vaccines were administered across the UK on Sunday, of which nearly 450,000 were booster shots, bringing the number of people who have received a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine to about 12.6m.
More than 60 per cent of people in the UK previously eligible for a booster shot — healthcare workers, the over-50s and clinically vulnerable individuals — have received the jab.
This is the latest attempt by the government to adapt the rules around booster shots in a bid to increase third dose uptake. Previously, health officials had changed the booking system so appointments could be booked after just five months, and cut the gap between second and third doses to five months for care home residents and housebound individuals to ease “operational hitches” in the rollout.