Vulnerable people and those aged 75 and over will be offered a fourth COVID jab this spring, says Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
It comes after a recommendation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Immunity from vaccination declines over time and many older adults received their most recent vaccine dose in September or October 2021.
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These individuals face a much higher risk from severe COVID-19, the JCVI said.
Therefore, another booster will be recommended for more than seven million people this spring.
Of these, half a million immunosuppressed people are eligible.
Those advised to get a fourth jab in spring are:
• Adults aged 75 years and over
• Residents in a care home for older adults
• Individuals aged 12 years and over who are immunosuppressed, as defined in the COVID-19 healthcare guidance Green Book.
“The JCVI will keep under review whether the booster programme should be extended to further at-risk groups,” Mr Javid said.
People aged over 18 will be given a 50mcg Moderna or 30mcg Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and eligible persons aged between 12 and 17 will be given a 30mcg Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The UK already has enough vaccine doses ordered to cover the booster programme.
Wider booster programme planned for autumn
The JCVI has provided additional interim advice to ministers ahead of planning for a wider booster programme in autumn, which is likely to include people who are at higher risk of severe COVID-19.
No details on this have emerged yet – but the JCVI believes winter is likely to remain the season when the threat of COVID is the greatest.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Chair of COVID-19 vaccination on the JCVI, said: “Last year’s booster vaccination programme has so far provided excellent protection against severe COVID-19.
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“To maintain high levels of protection for the most vulnerable individuals in the population, an extra spring dose of vaccine is advised ahead of an expected autumn booster programme later this year.
“The JCVI will continue its rolling review of the vaccination programme and the epidemiological situation, particularly in relation to the timing and value of doses for less vulnerable older adults and those in clinical risk groups ahead of autumn 2022.”
Many of us can expect an additional COVID vaccine before the year is out
Coming on the same day the Government is expected to lift all remaining COVID-19 restrictions, this announcement on the future of the vaccination programme is significant.
It demonstrates how vaccination is about to become our only formal defence against COVID and that even though the vaccine “wall” shows no signs of crumbling steps are being taken now to reinforce it.
Why boost now and not wait till the next wave, or the coming winter?
As we lift remaining restrictions like self-isolation, it’s uncertain how the epidemic will respond. Without routine testing, it might also be harder to see rapid changes in the spread of the virus. In other words, we’re heading into an uncertain time.
We can move forward without too much anxiety because boosters (for most people at third vaccine dose) provide around 90% protection from hospitalisation in the over-75s (by far the most vulnerable age group). However, we know that protection wanes.
The latest data shows that after 10 weeks that declines to about 88%. A tiny decrease, but in a vulnerable population, small numbers arithmetically can add up to big numbers statistically.
The decision to offer an additional spring booster is precautionary, insists the JCVI, to head off any waning of protection as we enter this more uncertain period.
We also learned today that an autumn booster would be offered, quite possibly for a larger proportion of the population, depending on what the data on vaccine protection is telling us as the year goes on.
It seems likely that by the end of the year many of us can expect to be offered an additional COVID-19 vaccine. That assumes of course, that the virus, and the way it spreads, stays the same. If recent history has taught us anything, however, it’s that we shouldn’t really assume anything.
‘Living with COVID’
The announcement comes as Boris Johnson is expected to outline how England will “live with” the virus, as he considers dropping all remaining restrictions.
The prime minister will make a statement in the Commons at 4.30pm after meeting with his cabinet to discuss the plans.
On Saturday, Downing Street had confirmed that positive cases and their close contacts will no longer have to self-isolate by the end of this week.
The provision of free lateral flow tests could also end, following reports people would have to pay for them.