All over-50s in the UK will be invited for a Covid-19 booster shot in the autumn, the government has announced, as infections continue to rise sharply across the country.
In May, it was announced that eligibility would be limited to over-65s but in an interview with the Financial Times last month Sajid Javid, then health secretary, made clear that plans were being laid for an expansion to younger people.
His successor, Steve Barclay, said on Friday that he had accepted the independent advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization to extend the offer of a top-up injection to people aged above 50, along with residents and staff in care homes for older adults, frontline health and social care workers, unpaid carers, individuals aged five to 49 in clinical-risk groups and household contacts of those who were immunosuppressed.
Viruses spread more easily in the colder seasons with people socializing inside, so the risk of getting Covid was higher, he said. “It is absolutely vital the most vulnerable groups receive a booster vaccine to strengthen their immunity against serious disease over winter to protect themselves and reduce pressure on the NHS,” he added.
Barclay also announced that everyone above 50 in England would be eligible for a free flu vaccination this year along with all primary school children and those in the first three years of secondary school. The offer would also be extended to people in clinical-risk groups, unpaid carers and household contacts of those who were immunosuppressed, he added.
“If you or your child are eligible for a Covid or flu vaccine, I urge you to come forward as soon as you are invited by the NHS,” Barclay said.
Earlier the Office for National Statistics published data that showed the percentage of people testing positive for coronavirus was still rising across the UK, reflecting the impact of the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant.
The ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey showed that in England, an estimated 2,873,600 had tested positive, suggesting around 1 in 19 people had the virus in the week to July 6, a rise from 1 in 25 a week earlier.
Scotland showed the highest rates, with around one in 16 testing positive, an increase from one in 17 a week earlier. In Wales, around 1 in 17 people tested positive, up from 1 in 20. In Northern Ireland, the equivalent figure was around 1 in 17 people, a rise from one in 19 the previous week.
The survey researchers said: “These increases were likely caused by increases in infections compatible with Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.”
Christina Pagel, a professor at University College London and member of the Independent Sage group of science advisers, said that all nations, regions and age groups were experiencing “very, very high levels of infection”.
One positive, she noted, was that “current hospital statistics suggest we may be approaching a peak which would become apparent in the ONS infection survey in a week or two, but this does not change the fact that we’ve seen yet another damaging and disruptive wave of infection”.
Kit Yates, director of the Center for Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath, said some of these infections would have long-term repercussions. “The number of people in the UK suffering with Long Covid is over 2mn. Four hundred thousand of these report that their symptoms are significantly limiting their everyday activities. I’m not sure, as a nation, how much longer we can go on ignoring Covid and its consequences,” he added.
Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said the total number of people infected had increased by 29 per cent in a week. While infections had not yet reached the level of March and early April this year “they really aren’t far behind”, he warned.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland there was a hint in the results that the increases might be slowing. But McConway said “a slowing rate of increase is still an increase, and you can’t really detect a change in the speed of increase definitely from just one week’s results anyway.”