Vaccine booster shots for 32m to begin next month
Booster vaccines are to be offered to 32million Britons starting early next month with up to 2,000 pharmacies set to deliver the programme, The Telegraph can disclose.
Amid fears that the efficacy of the vaccines may begin to decline, ministers are planning to deliver an average of almost 2.5million third doses a week starting in the first week of September.
Pharmacies will be at the forefront of the vaccine programme so that GPs and other NHS staff can focus on the growing backlog of patients waiting for other treatments.
All adults aged 50 and over, as well as the immuno-suppressed, will be offered the booster jabs.
The campaign could start as soon as Sept 6, which would see the rollout completed by early December if it goes to plan. It is hoped the timetable will leave at least a fortnight for the final people vaccinated to benefit from the jab's effect before Christmas.
Proposals have been drawn up for the Covid-19 vaccine to be co-administered alongside the flu jab, with one injection in each arm mooted.
“That is the plan, wherever possible,” said a government source, but stressed it “depends on final JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] advice and coronavirus vaccine booster trials”.
The source added that ministers were “looking to beat our record of jabs per day”. To date, the highest tally of doses given in a single day was 873,784, which occurred on March 20. The feat was equivalent to vaccinating the entire adult populations of Liverpool, Southampton and Oxford combined, NHS England pointed out.
The Government will be looking to administer an average 2.46 million jabs a week throughout the booster campaign in order to meet its deadline for finishing the rollout.
Ministers are considering giving people a different booster jab to the shot they received for their first and second dose, after early trials suggested that mixing vaccines could provoke an enhanced immune response. It could mean a significant reduction in the use of AstraZeneca jabs.
Seven jabs are being tested, with the mRNA vaccines Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, and subunit protein vaccine Novavax showing positive results in preliminary data, it is understood.
Details of the booster jab rollout emerged after Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, briefed MPs on it.
On Sunday the Government announced that 85million doses of Covid vaccine had been administered so far, with 88 per cent of adults receiving their first shot and 72 per cent both doses. All adults are due to be offered a second jab by mid-September.
Public Health England data shows that two doses provide over 90 per cent protection against hospitalisation from the delta variant, which is the dominant strain in the UK.
The booster jab campaign aims to protect the most vulnerable ahead of winter from any other variants of concern.
The number of pharmacies involved will triple from around 650, marking a change to the next phase of the vaccination programme.
At the end of June, Matt Hancock, then health secretary, served notice of plans for a “big shift” towards delivery through pharmacies. He added: “Frankly we need GPs to be back in surgeries practising medicine in the normal way.”
Nikki Kanani, the NHS England medical director for primary care, last month unveiled a streamlined application process to allow more pharmacies to sign up to hand out the jab.
Sites can now express an interest in administering as few as 100 jabs a week. Previously they had to be able to commit to giving out 1,000 to be eligible.
There appears to be public demand to get jabs at pharmacies. A YouGov poll conducted last month for the National Pharmacy Association [NPA] showed that 90 per cent of people would consider getting a Covid-19 booster jab at a pharmacy.
The survey showed that 67 per cent said this would be very convenient, compared with 30 per cent for mass vaccination centres.
The pharmacy industry has welcomed plans to increase the number of sites authorised to carry out Covid jabs.
Pharmacies can take the load off GPs
Andrew Lane, the NPA chairman, highlighted that involving more pharmacies would allow GPs to focus on clearing the care backlog in the NHS.
He said he had met with Mr Zahawi, who acknowledged that people have a high level of trust in their local pharmacists. In addition, Mr Lane said that pharmacies were present in all communities, including the most deprived areas of the country.
“After the mass vaccination centres are wound down, pharmacies will still be there for the long haul out of this nightmare,” he added.
Concerns have arisen in the sector, however, about plans to withdraw state indemnity for pharmacies during the booster campaign, which will raise the cost of their participation as they are forced to seek private insurance.
The plan to cover only GPs under the state-backed scheme during the third phase of the vaccination programme was revealed by Caroline Temmink, the NHS England and NHS Improvement director of primary care vaccination, in a webinar last month, according to the publication Chemist and Druggist.
Simon Dukes, the chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Negotiating Services Committee, which represents high street pharmacies during talks with the Government, called on ministers to reverse the plan.
“The Government should think again about that,” he said. “It does seem odd that we’ve got indemnity for GP sites and not for pharmacy sites. For something like this, a national effort against a pandemic, we should be doing everything we can.”
Another senior pharmacy industry source called for more transparency in the relationship between the sector and the health service, saying: “The NHS has been quite coy about sharing data with us.”
While up to 2,000 pharmacies will become Covid vaccination centres, the number falls far short of the 9,500 pharmacies that usually offer flu vaccines.
Sector insiders called on ministers to ensure that those chemists that ordered stocks of flu jabs back in March, but are not set to offer Covid jabs, are not left out of pocket if they are shunned by people who prefer to visit a site where they can get both at once, if the “one in each arm” policy is approved.
An NHS spokesman said: “Community pharmacies have been an important part of the NHS Covid vaccination programme, the biggest and most successful in the health service’s history, and they will continue to play a vital role as we move into the next phase this autumn.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said the booster programme would be “informed by the JCVI’s final advice”, with details of the rollout confirmed “in due course”.