People aged 50 and over in England will be offered another Covid booster and a flu shot from September in an effort to substantially reduce hospitalisations and deaths from the infections over the winter.
Another round of Covid boosters will also be available for staff and residents of care homes for older people, frontline health and social care workers, adult carers, household contacts of people with weakened immune systems, and those at clinical risk, including pregnant women.
The move follows final advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and significantly broadens the number of people it originally suggested should be eligible for autumn boosters in its interim advice in May.
The JCVI decided to broaden the vaccine offer after reviewing the rapid spread of the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of Omicron, which are driving the UK’s current wave of infections. There were also benefits in aligning the Covid booster campaign with the rollout of annual flu vaccinations, advisers said.
“We have provided our final recommendations for the autumn programme to ensure the NHS and wider health system has time to plan a vaccine rollout well ahead of the winter season,” said Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the JCVI.
“The Covid-19 boosters are highly effective at increasing immunity and, by offering a further dose to those at higher risk of severe illness this autumn, we hope to significantly reduce the risk of hospitalisations and deaths over the winter,” he added.
The UK has been struck by three waves of Covid in the past seven months, driving infections up to record levels. The first wave, fuelled by the original Omicron variant BA.1, peaked in January.
Then came another wave driven by the BA.2 subvariant. When it peaked in March, a record 1 in 14 people in England were infected. The latest wave began in June as the BA.4 and BA.5 variants took hold. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 1 in 19 people in England were infected last week, with BA.5 accounting for nearly 70% and BA.4 a further 20%.
With hospitalisations rising fast, Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, has urged eligible people to come forward for the spring booster if they have not already. Nearly one-fifth of those aged 75 and over have not taken up the offer. Since December, Omicron has more than doubled the cumulative number of infections in England, from 25.9m to 67.7m. Half those infected in the latest wave had not had Covid before, even though they made up only 15% of the population.
The continued evolution of the virus has steadily eroded the protection that vaccines provide, though protection against severe disease has held up well. With Omicron dominating in 2022, some vaccine manufacturers, such as Moderna and Pfizer, have updated their shots to target the variant, or a combination of Omicron and the original Covid strain that started the pandemic.
Adding to the threat from Covid, public health officials fear influenza may bounce back hard and early this year, given the experience in Australia, making vaccinations for flu and Covid a high priority in the autumn. Those eligible for the free flu shot include secondary school pupils in years 7, 8 and 9. The NHS will announce when people can come forward for jabs.
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at UK Health Security Agency, said: “Widening the eligibility for the flu vaccine will help reduce the number of people getting seriously ill and ease pressures on the NHS, particularly during the busy winter period.”
“It is also important that everyone eligible for the Covid-19 booster gets the jab when invited, including pregnant women, who are among those at higher risk. Having Covid-19 during pregnancy can lead to complications. Getting the vaccine, including a booster, offers the best possible protection for you and your baby.”
July 15, 2022 at 09:09PM Ian Sample Science editor