Britain’s sluggish booster vaccine rollout is being held up by the NHS sending texts to elderly Britons who ‘do not know how to use their phones’, medics warned today amid growing demands to speed up the drive and prevent ministers from reimposing restrictions once more.
Reena Barrai, a pharmacist in Surrey, said many patients have come in ‘anxious’ because they cannot work out how to access the online system to book their top-up dose.
She added the pharmacy was becoming a ‘surrogate’ 119 service, with patients coming to her because they did not want to be a burden on the telephone hotline or their doctor.
A couple of GPs said today they were also seeing patients who were struggling to work out how to book booster jabs, and that the ‘urgency’ to get vaccinated seen during the first drive was lacking.
It came as one of No10’s top advisers said today the wait for booster jabs could be cut to five months amid surging infections across the country. Boris Johnson last night piled pressure on his scientific advisers to slash the waiting time from six months to five, which would make nearly 9million more Britons eligible for the jab.
And today Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) which set the gap, admitted this was ‘something we will need to consider in due course’.
Professor Harnden claimed although the current wait was the ‘sweet spot’ for shoring up immunity, the country’s runaway infections were likely to shift the equation in favour of an earlier third dose. He also shot down calls for over-40s to be offered booster doses, saying the jabs were still doing their job in the age group because they got theirs more recently.
JCVI chiefs have been flexible with dosing times in the past. They extended the gap between first and second jabs from three weeks to 12 in the second wave to get more people partially protected. In July, they slashed this to eight following a surge in Covid cases.
Professor Adam Finn, another JCVI member, said that booster doses would make ‘only a modest difference’ to infection rates in the UK. Yesterday Britain’s infections surged through 50,000 daily cases for the first time in three months.
Studies have shown that vaccine-triggered immunity wanes over time, with one showing the Pfizer jab only blocks infections in 84 per cent of cases four months after the second dose compared to 96 per cent at the peak.
But papers have shown that a third dose can reverse this decline. Pfizer released data yesterday showing a top-up dose pushes immunity back to its previous near-perfect levels and works against the more infectious Delta variant.
Concern has been growing that the rollout of the Covid booster scheme has been far too slow, putting the public at risk as cases rise. At present, over-50s and those with health problems are invited for their jab six months after their second dose.
But less than half of those who are eligible have booked their top up jabs, with just four out of 8.7million Britons having got their third dose so far.
Only around 4million(purple line) out of the 8.7million eligible people (green line) in England have received the crucial third dose, prompting ministers to urge people to come forward for their inoculations
Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the JCVI, said experts would need to consider whether to cut the gap between doses in ‘due course’. Boris Johnson (pictured yesterday visiting a school in County Antrim) and other ministers last night heaped pressure on advisers to slash the gap to top up jabs from six months to five
Slowness has led to finger pointing, with the Government and the NHS saying demand is not there. But medics on the frontlines of the booster rollout said today there was still confusion about the programme.
Following a sluggish start the NHS has now made it so that people who are eligible can book themselves in without having to wait on an invite. Figures showed that yesterday a record 240,000 people booked their third dose of the vaccine in a sign uptake may be starting to tick up.
Ms Barrai also warned that many people were unaware that there was even a booster programme taking place and that they might be eligible.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve had many people who maybe have got a bit fed up with the Covid media and didn’t even realise there is a booster programme.
‘So, when they come in to collect their prescriptions we have been able to remind them, “you do know there’s a booster programme and you are eligible? You can book in”.
Huge awareness campaign urging older people to have their Covid booster and flu jabs will launch today
Ministers will launch a multi-million-pound advertising campaign today urging older people to have their Covid booster and flu jabs.
They depict families and healthcare workers with blue and yellow halos around them to represent the extra protection that the vaccines give them.
It is a nod to the 1980s Ready Brek adverts that showed children who had eaten the warm porridge cereal with a yellow glow around them under the slogan ‘central heating for kids’.
The Downing Street campaign aims to improve take-up of the booster jab in a bid to head off the need for new Covid restrictions this winter.
The new TV advert urges people to ‘get vaccinated, get boosted, get protected’ and features an NHS nurse.
And in a subliminal message, everyone featured in settings such as public transport and shopping centres is wearing a face mask.
The advert’s nurse, a real-life NHS employee identified only as Michelle, says: ‘As a frontline worker for the NHS, I’ve seen first-hand the devastating impact both Covid and flu can have in winter.
‘Vaccines offer the best protection and I hope this campaign drives home the importance of coming forward for your vaccine.’
‘And, I guess, we have had another cohort of patients that actually have been receiving texts on mobile phones that they struggle to use, bless them, and I had an elderly gentleman come in this week who was so anxious because he just did not know how to book online.’
Ms Barrai said her pharmacy was becoming a bit like a ‘surrogate’ 119 service, because people did not want to be a burden and contact the phone service or bother their GP practice.
A GP near Bradford also told the programme that they were seeing patients who were struggling to work out how to book appointments.
They said: ‘This is a bit like the moon landings in the 1970s. Last year the vaccine when the vaccine was being used everybody was interested and everybody switched on and took their vaccine at the first opportunity.
‘But like the moon landing there’s probably about a sixth or seventh of people who have switched off now and are less interested.’
He added: ‘There is not the same sense of urgency (as with the first roll out).’
Asked whether the gap should be cut to five months, Professor Harnden told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think it is something that should be considered, but I think the data has shown that six months is a sort of sweet spot.’
He continued: ‘Whether it is five months or whether it is seven months is not so important, but I think what is important is that people get their booster dose and I think if people could actually get that booster dose they will get that extra bit of protection.
‘So, whether it would be five months, six months, seven months and so on, on the JCVI we advised six months because that’s what the data shows is the sweet spot.
‘But as you know with the 12-week (gap), which was the appropriate gap for the second dose, that was brought down to eight weeks when infection rates were high.
‘Infection rates are high at the moment and it is important that vulnerable people get their boosters.’
He also called for face masks and social distancing to return in the country, saying although vaccines can do the ‘heavy lifting’ they cannot ‘do everything’.
The professor, who is also a GP in Oxford, told the programme: ‘We should be still maintaining social distancing, we should be wearing masks in crowded spaces and we should all remain sensible.
‘The Government is currently coming through a winter period where we are going to have flu around as well probably and I think we just need to be cautious really as a society.’
Asked when over-40s should get their third dose, Professor Harnden said this was not something that they needed to worry about yet adding that these people received their second dose only relatively recently.
He said: ‘I don’t think we need to make those decisions yet.’
Professor Finn said that boosters would not bring down infection rates on their own today, telling The Times: ‘Tinkering with the dose interval might drive the numbers of people getting a third dose up a bit sooner but this is arguing over the pennies while letting the pounds — measures to reduce transmission: masks, social distancing, lateral flow test — look after themselves.’
Ministers are facing calls to turbo-charge the booster programme amid its sluggish uptake as cases rise across the country.
Many elderly people have said they are struggling to get boosters because they can’t find out how to sign up, while others say they still have not heard from their GP.
But some people also appear to be completely unaware they could be eligible for a top-up jab, amid criticism at a lack of advertising to drive the campaign.
Care minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News today that ministers would cut the gap between doses to five months if the JCVI advised this.
She said: ‘They’ve advised us six months so we put that plan in place on 14 September, and the first booster jab went into an arm on 16 September.
‘Of course they continually look at the data but they are the only people who can answer this question (Whether the gap should be cut). If they advise us, our job then is to get ready to do whatever they say.’
Pfizer booster dose offers near-perfect protection against falling ill
A third dose of Pfizer’s Covid vaccine provides near-total protection against symptomatic disease, the drugs giant has claimed.
The first full trial of the jab as a booster found that the additional shot raises immunity by a further 95.6 per cent.
Among 10,000 volunteers followed for almost a year, those who only had two injections were far more likely to test positive and fall ill than those given three.
Pfizer admitted that protection from the initial two-dose regimen wanes to about 84 per cent within six months.
The study also found that the booster shot was found to be safe with no safety concerns or severe adverse events reported.
Pfizer’s findings are in line with real-world data from Israel, which found people were 20 times less likely to be hospitalised with Covid if they were boosted.
The key question now is how long the boost to immunity from a third dose lasts, and whether people will need to be revaccinated again at a later date.
‘These results provide further evidence of the benefits of boosters as we aim to keep people well-protected against this disease,’ said Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla in a statement.
‘In addition to our efforts to increase global access and uptake among the unvaccinated, we believe boosters have a critical role to play in addressing the ongoing public health threat of this pandemic.
‘We look forward to sharing these data with health authorities and working together to determine how they can be used to support the rollout of booster doses around the world.’
The six-month deadline was imposed by the Government’s advisers on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). The Prime Minister’s intervention suggests the JCVI may be asked to revisit the timeline.
Speaking during a visit to Northern Ireland, Mr Johnson urged over-50s to come forward and get their booster jabs as soon as they become eligible – saying it was important to ‘fortify’ defences against the virus.
‘The most important thing people can do now is get that booster jab. You get the call, get the jab. We have done about four million booster jabs already but as soon as you become eligible, as soon as you get that call, everybody over 50 should be getting that jab.
‘We are in a much better position going into the autumn/winter now than we were 12 months ago, incomparably better, because of the huge level of protection we have got from the vaccines.
‘Ninety per cent of the adult population has antibodies right now, but we most fortify ourselves further.
‘The numbers are high, we can see what’s happening, we can see the increase, now is the time to get those booster jabs.’
Earlier in the day, Mr Hunt said: ‘At its peak in the spring, we were jabbing 400,000 people a day. Now it’s less than 200,000 people a day.
‘If you look at the higher hospitalisations, cases and death rates, compared to countries like France and Germany, the heart of it is not actually things like mask-wearing and Covid passports, it is their higher vaccine immunity.
‘On the decision that people cannot have their booster jab until six months after their second job, how hard and fast should that rule be? Does it really matter, when it is only nine weeks until the Christmas holidays, if someone has their booster jab after only five months?
‘Should we not look at having some flexibility on that decision, so that we can get more people in for their booster jabs more quickly?’
Replying, vaccines minister Maggie Throup did not indicate a change was on the horizon.
‘The JCVI has provided advice that there should be a minimum of six months after the second jab, but I would like to reassure the House that the immunity does not fall off a cliff edge,’ she said. ‘It has waned slightly but not sufficiently, so there is still time for people to come forward.
‘Obviously, we are encouraging them to come forward as soon as they are eligible, but they still have a huge amount of immunity over and above those who have yet to get their first jab.’ But later the PM’s official spokesman suggested that pressure could be brought to bear on the JCVI.
‘We want to move as swiftly as possible on boosters,’ he said.
‘More than 5.5 million people have been invited, more than four million doses have been administered so far and we want to move as quickly as possible on that.
‘As you’ll know, there is that six-month time period that the JCVI currently recommends… so it’s only when those people become eligible that we are able to provide their boosters.’ Asked about Mr Hunt’s call to cut the waiting time to five months, the spokesman said: ‘That six-month gap is on JCVI advice currently. Obviously we would expect them to keep that under review and if they were to change the advice we would want to be in a position to move on that.’ It comes as a new study confirmed the importance of a third dose for boosting protection.
A booster shot of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine is 95.6 per cent effective against Covid-19 compared with two shots and a placebo, the study revealed.
Ugur Sahin, the head of BioNTech, said the ‘important data’ added to the body of evidence suggesting that a booster dose could help ‘protect a broad population of people from this virus and its variants’.
Vaccine Q&A: How do I book a booster?
What is a Covid booster jab?
A booster is a third dose of a Covid vaccine. The particular brand of vaccine you receive – Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna or Oxford/AstraZeneca – might be different from the one you got for your first and second doses. The booster helps improve the protection you have from your first two doses. This is because the immunity given by two jabs starts to wane after about six months.
Who is eligible for a booster? Anyone over the age of 50 who had their second dose at least six months ago.
Younger people with health conditions that put them at greater risk of getting very ill from Covid are also due a booster, as well as frontline NHS and care home staff.
When will I get my booster?
You will be offered a booster jab about six months after your second dose. The NHS is contacting people around six months and one week after their second dose, inviting them to get their jab. It is important not to contact the NHS before then. Frontline health or social care workers can book a booster appointment online and do not have to wait to be contacted by the NHS.
How can I get one? When you become eligible you should receive a text, letter or phone call from your GP to arrange a booking.
However, if you had your second jab six months ago and still haven’t been contacted, you can now book your booster online via the NHS website, or by calling 119.
Where are boosters being dished out? NHS England says there are 2,200 vaccine hubs around the country, ‘most’ of which are stocking boosters.
There are less mass vaccination hubs now than in the first rollout with the emphasis now on local pharmacies and GP surgeries. A full list of facilities administering boosters can be found when booking online.
How many boosters have been delivered already? 4.05million, but 8.7m are eligible. There have been calls for the rollout to speed up. Eventually more than 30m adults will qualify for boosters.
Which vaccine will I get?
Most will be offered a booster dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine or Moderna vaccine. This means your booster dose may be different from the vaccines you had for your first and second doses. Some people may be offered a booster dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine if they are allergic to the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccine.
Can I get my Covid jab if I am getting a flu vaccine?
The majority of people who can get a Covid booster vaccine are also eligible for the annual flu vaccine. If you are offered both vaccines, it is safe and effective to have them at the same time or one after the other in any order.
Don’t panic! He’s the expert who’s got every Covid prediction right. Now read PHILIP THOMAS’s peerless analysis of the new infection fright – and why there’s nothing to fear
by Philip Thomas for the Daily Mail
Sajid Javid’s warning this week could not have been more stark. With rates of infections from Covid now rising fast, the Health Secretary said, Britain is on course to top 100,000 infections per day in the coming weeks.
That is a huge number — it would far exceed the near-70,000 daily rate reported at the height of the winter wave last Christmas — and has brought with it the inevitable doom-laden calls for a reinstatement of restrictions such as masks, social distancing and even more lockdowns.
As a mathematician, however, I can tell you that numbers alone do not always tell the whole story — and they certainly do not in this case.
Too much has changed since the dark days of last winter.
As this newspaper has reported, Britain’s world-beating vaccination programme has broken the chain between infections and rates of serious illness and death.
Indeed, a study this week by the Italian National Health Institute makes it abundantly clear: people who are fully vaccinated against Covid are highly unlikely to die of the disease unless they are both very old and already ill.
And let’s not forget, protecting the NHS from being overwhelmed with seriously ill Covid patients has always been the sole criteria behind ramping up restrictions, or plunging us into lockdowns.
So, instead of bowing to calls to reimpose restrictions — with their own devastating impact on the nation’s health and finances — the Government must press ahead with its booster programme, which has, regrettably, been slowing.
Mr Javid is standing firm, for now at least, declaring it critical that those eligible for a third jab have it.
He is right to do so: both clear data and the events of recent months show that the combination of vaccination and a growth in natural immunity have meant the virus has lost much of its sting.
I see no evidence to justify reintroducing any social restrictions — and that has been the case for a while.
Only one in 20 people being tested for Covid in the UK has the virus
Only one in 20 people being tested for Covid in the UK has the virus – suggesting the epidemic remains under control.
Some 4.8 per cent of tests are positive, down from 13.3 per cent in January.
The positive rate is a good indicator of how adequately countries are testing. In countries with a high positive rate, the number of confirmed cases is likely to represent only a small fraction of infections.
The World Health Organisation’s criteria says less than 5 per cent is an indicator the epidemic is under control. The positive rate in the US is 8.1 per cent, while it is 6.7 per cent in Germany and 0.7 per cent in South Korea, according to Our World in Data.
Last spring, ahead of the nation’s July 19 ‘Freedom Day’, when almost all remaining Covid restrictions were lifted (which many branded ‘reckless’), I wrote that I did not believe we would see a third wave of any significance.
I was confident in this view because I had developed my own mathematical model at the University of Bristol, which I call the Predictor Corrector Coronavirus Filter (PCCF), to chart and forecast the shape of the pandemic.
It’s proved impressively accurate — far more so than the panic-inducing scenarios formulated by the Government’s advisers at Sage, who warned of rocketing infections if restrictions eased. But it didn’t work out like that, did it? In fact, the opposite occurred — and while infections initially went up, we then experienced a rapid drop at the end of July.
So let’s look at the current situation.
While infection rates have been rising in recent weeks (new cases are running at about 40,000 a day in England) my calculations do not envisage them running much higher than 60,000 a day for England — far short of the predictions we’ve heard this week.
However, the key question is: who exactly is being affected?
Currently, it is mainly high-school children, an age group that hasn’t been vaccinated to the same extent as adults and which is also very unlikely to become seriously ill.
In recent weeks, the proportion of children aged 12 to 16 with Covid has leapt from one in 20 to around one in 12. In stark contrast, just one in 165 of those aged 70 and above currently has Covid.
As we know, it is almost entirely older people who are vulnerable to dying from the virus. That is why hospitalisations and death rates have mercifully not kept pace with the rises in infection.
Indeed, death rates for over-65s are now back to normal for this time of year.
Only fully vaxxed at 3rd dose?
Britons may need three Covid jabs to be classed as ‘fully vaccinated’ in a move aimed at increasing booster uptake.
The change could see people who have only received two doses denied entry to crowded places if ministers press ahead with controversial plans for vaccine passports and restrict foreign travel.
Downing Street yesterday said officials were looking at whether to change the definition of ‘fully vaccinated’ status in future, but there were ‘no plans’ to do it at the moment. A spokesman added: ‘There is further work being done on that by clinical experts.’
Speaking last month, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Jonathan van Tam said there was ‘no current consideration of Covid certification in terms of the boosters’.
Asked if he would consider people fully vaccinated if they had not had three jabs, he added: ‘I would consider they don’t have the optimal protection on board, as a scientist.’
However, it is also true Covid antibodies appear to lose some effectiveness many months after either vaccination or infection with the virus.
It is worth noting that harder-to-measure T-cells — groups of cells that target and destroy viruses — could play as big a role in protecting us as antibodies. But, regardless, a concerted programme of booster jabs can only be beneficial — if not just for the difference they make to infection rates. For instance, yesterday it was reported that in Israel, where nearly half the population has received a booster jab, Covid infection rates have now fallen dramatically from a peak of 10,000 cases per day in September to only around 1,000 cases per day as of Tuesday. The Israeli death toll has also seen a steady decline.
It must also be acknowledged that any rise in infection rates cannot be the only yardstick by which we measure the health of our nation.
Many of those shrieking loudest for the return of restrictions — either in the shape of mask mandates and vaccine passports under the Government’s ‘Plan B’, or harsher measures such as bans on visits between households under a putative ‘Plan C’ — fail to appreciate that a restricted society is also a profoundly unhealthy one.
Education is disrupted, enterprise wrecked, financial insecurity heightened and mental health undermined.
Meanwhile, Covid is wreaking a tragic legacy on the NHS, with waiting lists soaring alongside the number of patients with serious diseases who have not been given the treatment they need.
Doom-mongers may also point to a possible rise in flu infections this winter, thanks to lower overall immunity as a consequence of lockdowns.
But to those concerns it is worth pointing out that an ambitious flu jab programme is under way for the over-50s.
What’s more, 50,000 deaths a year from flu and pneumonia were not uncommon in the 1990s, before vaccinations were widely given. No one thought of locking down then — and restrictions to regulate non-Covid illnesses would be a concerning new over-reach of the state.
Of course, soaring Covid numbers can look scary — even my PCCF model projects that total active infections could reach 1.2 million by the end of November (slightly above January’s peak) before starting a long fade.
But that number is manageable, as the vast majority would likely be among the under-25s — ensuring hospitalisations and deaths will remain similar to current levels.
So, yes, winter is coming. And, yes, Covid and flu infections will likely rise. But we need not be daunted.
If we commit wholly to this booster programme, then the wall of strong immunity we have developed will be maintained into spring — by which point I am confident we will be able to put the spectre of Covid behind us once and for all.
And as for fresh restrictions: the Government was right to ignore apocalyptic warnings in the summer. They must find the courage to do so again.
- Philip Thomas is visiting academic professor at University of Bristol.