Boris Johnson has warned that step four of England’s “road map” out of lockdown in June is in jeopardy as scientists said the Indian variant of concern could be 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
Here’s how the vaccine roll-out has been affected to help win the “race” between the programme and the surge of the virus.
What was the plan?
In January, the UK government announced that every adult in the country would be offered a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine by the end of July.
It later said both parts of the two-dose vaccine could be delivered 12 weeks apart, a move that courted controversy since the initial plan was to leave 21 days between the jabs. It was breaking with the policy adopted by many other countries.
The roll-out was based on getting the vaccines to the most vulnerable groups first. The priority list was decided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – an independent expert advisory committee.
The top priority groups were over-80s, care home residents, and NHS and social care staff. In phase two, jabs were handed out to people over 75, before moving down to those aged 70-plus and 65-plus as well as other adults with health conditions which leave them vulnerable. Other adults over 50 were then vaccinated in the third phase.
The roll-out age group started to stall between the 40- and 50-year-old cohort due to global supply issues – but the July goal remained the same.
The government is now looking at ways to “flex” the rollout of vaccines in areas most impacted by the variant, including vaccinating everyone in multi-generational households, from 18-year-olds to grandparents. A handful of areas in England are encouraging all over-18s to come forward for the jab.
A vaccine centre in Merseyside has had queues around the block after it was announced all over-20s would be given a jab. In Scotland, all over-18s living in Moray are now able to book a vaccine, in an effort to tackle rising Covid cases in the area.
Meanwhile, the prime minister announced on Friday that the over-50s will now be offered their second jab eight weeks after their first – instead of 12 weeks.
Elsewhere in England, the broader vaccine rollout was extended to those aged 38 to 39 on May 13 and everyone eligible is being urged to book – especially if you live in an area with rising cases.
Data from Public Health England shows a rise in cases of the Indian variant of concern from 520 to 1,313 this week in the UK, with the agency saying infections were “rising in the community”.
The change comes as the UK tries to ward off the possibility of a new surge in cases caused by the India variant, which is feared to be up to 50% more transmissible than the Kent variant.
Johnson told a Downing Street press briefing: “The race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter, and it’s more important than ever therefore that people get the protection of a second dose.”
How will it affect those waiting?
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said despite the change in tactics it was still the government’s aim for everybody to have been offered a first dose of the vaccine by the end of July.
“The prioritisation of second doses will not, we think, delay the situation, the rollout, for people who are in younger ages,” he told the briefing.
“We hope to get all the way through to everybody having their first vaccine by the end of July – that is the aim.
“Additionally, there is an aim for people of all ages to accelerate to some degree the point at which people get their second vaccination.”
Prof Whitty added: “This is because we think those who have a second vaccine will have greater protection, not only against the original variants but also against this new variant.”
He said even with the India variant, the number of people who are testing positive for Covid-19 in the UK is “on a steady downward path and is stable” in terms of the overall numbers.
There is also a “steady decrease” in the numbers of people who are in hospital.
Prof Whitty said the number who have died following a Covid-19 test has been steadily decreasing with the most recent seven-day average standing at seven deaths a day