Scientific advisers have sent the government their recommendations for who should be offered a COVID booster jab this autumn.
Experts from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said the extra shot would help maintain protection over the winter against severe COVID-19.
It recommends jabs for:
- Over 65s
- Care home residents and staff
- Frontline health and social care workers
- People over 16 in vulnerable groups
The “interim advice” is intended to help the NHS plan for later in the year – and it’s possible more people could be added to the above groups.
The JCVI said it would continue assessing the situation “in relation to the timing and value of doses for less vulnerable older adults”.
Final plans will be announced later in the year.
Analysis: Booster targeting makes sense, but leaves the economy exposed
It’s a marked contrast to the booster rollout of last autumn, when it was offered in stages to all adults.
So why the focus on relatively narrow groups?
Well, for a start, it makes clinical sense to target those most at risk.
Second, it limits the number of needles that need to go into arms – an important logistical factor for the NHS, which is also under pressure to catch up with waiting lists for other medical conditions.
And there is also the issue of vaccine fatigue.
Each dose of the jab has had a lower uptake than the last.
Even now, fewer than half of all people under 40 have had the booster rolled out last autumn. Many just don’t perceive themselves to be at risk from the virus anymore.
But such a targeted approach does leave much of the population reliant on fading immunity from previous doses or a COVID infection. That’s a risk.
There are new versions of Omicron called BA.4 and BA.5 that are behind a rise in cases in South Africa.
Although they cause the same relatively mild disease in most, they seem to be more infectious than any COVID variant we’ve seen so far and they can re-infect even people who have recently had existing Omicron sub-types.
So while giving the booster to the vulnerable makes sense to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed, it still leaves the economy exposed.
The public sector, including the NHS, and businesses such as airlines, struggled with staff absences during the Omicron wave.
And that could be repeated if an even more infectious version – or a whole new variant – takes hold in the UK.
It’s impossible to predict what will happen with any certainty this far out and why the vaccination authorities could yet refine their advice as we get closer to autumn.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of COVID vaccination on the JCVI, said: “Last year’s autumn booster vaccination programme provided excellent protection against severe COVID-19, including against the Omicron variant.
“We have provided interim advice on an autumn booster programme for 2022 so that the NHS and care homes are able to start the necessary operational planning, to enable high levels of protection for more vulnerable individuals and frontline healthcare staff over next winter.
“As we continue to review the scientific data, further updates to this advice will follow.”
‘Considerable uncertainty’ over future waves
If the government accepts the recommendation, it will be some people’s fifth COVID jab.
A spring booster programme has been rolling out a fourth vaccine to over 75s, care home residents, and people over 12 with a weakened immune system.
The UK Health Security Agency said there was “considerable uncertainty with regards to the likelihood, timing and severity of any potential future wave of COVID-19”, but that the greatest threat would still come in winter.
It said the key aim of an autumn booster programme would be to reduce hospitalisations and deaths.
The UK’s latest rolling average for daily coronavirus cases is 8,398; a huge drop from the 180,000-plus daily cases of early January.
For deaths within 28 days of a positive test, the latest daily average is 112; in mid-January it was over 1,200.