By Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) -Britain will offer a COVID-19 booster shot to all adults in a bid to accelerate its vaccination programme amid concern over the new Omicron coronavirus variant, as eight more cases were found in the country.
Britain as a whole has reported 11 cases of the new variant, which the World Health Organization said on Monday was likely to spread internationally and posed a very high risk of infection surges.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has responded to the emergence of Omicron by making mask-wearing compulsory in shops and on public transport in England.
He also asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to review the booster programme, which is currently open to over-40s, the vulnerable and health workers.
The JCVI recommended on Monday that boosters be offered to all adults under 40, that the minimum gap between second doses and boosters could be reduced to three months from six, and that 12- to 15-year-olds could get a second shot.
Health minister Sajid Javid said he would follow the advice, and that those who were most vulnerable would be prioritised for shots, with further details in the coming days.
"There's a lot we don't know about how our vaccine responds to this new variant. But although it's possible that they may be less effective, it's highly unlikely they will have no effect at all against serious disease," Javid told lawmakers.
"With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people, more quickly, and make us better protected as a nation."
SOME COMMUNITY TRANSMISSION
Scotland reported six new Omicron cases on Monday, with two further cases confirmed in London, to bring the English total to five.
The four nations of the United Kingdom have all restricted travel to southern Africa, where the variant was first detected last week, in a bid to slow its spread.
But Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said not all of the six cases had recent travel history or known links with others who had travelled to southern Africa.
"This suggests that there might already be some community transmission of this variant," she told a news conference.
"There is no evidence yet that this is sustained, nor any evidence from the enhanced surveillance that it is widespread at this stage."
Sturgeon said the timeframe of the cases suggested it was unlikely but not impossible that there was a link to the COP26 climate change conference that took place in Glasgow earlier this month.
Asked whether he believed there was community transmission in the UK, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman told reporters: "I have got no evidence of that as it stands."
(Reporting by Alistair Smout, additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Kate Holton, John Stonestreet and Bernadette Baum)