A program to refresh the Covid-19 vaccination could begin as early as September for 32 million Britons, officials said.
New preliminary guidance from experts advising the government sets the priority list of who should receive a third vaccination when a booster program is required.
The plans are made to ensure the NHS is prepared for a possible refresher campaign while officials wait for more data on whether a third vaccine is needed to bolster protection over the winter months.
It will coincide with the introduction of flu shots, which health officials say will be vital this winter in preparing for a potentially difficult flu season.
The UK is the first country in the world to publish preliminary guidelines on a Covid-19 vaccine booster campaign, although a number of other countries are considering proposals.
The interim guidelines of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI) provide for two phases for the Covid-19 booster program:
- The first phase will offer a refresher to 15 million of the most vulnerable people across the UK, including those over 70, health and care workers, elderly care home residents, the clinically extremely vulnerable (previously asked for protection) and people they are immunocompromised.
- The second phase will extend to an additional 17 million people, including those over 50, adults over the age of 16 who are usually offered a free NHS flu shot, those aged 16 to 49 in a Covid risk group, and those who in regular contact with an immunocompromised person.
Officials have emphasized that a third vaccine may not be required, but government scientific advisors have stated that they are “taking no chances” and wanting to give the health service as much time as possible to plan.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 Chairman of the Committee, said, “The JCVI’s preliminary advice is that if a refresher program is required, starting September 2021, the most vulnerable should be offered a third dose of Covid-19 vaccine first to maximize individual protection and protect the NHS from winter.
“Almost all of these people would also be eligible for the annual flu shot and it is highly recommended that you have the flu shot.
“We will continue to review new scientific data over the next few months, including data on duration of immunity to the current vaccines. Our final recommendation for a booster vaccination may change significantly. “
Health Minister Sajid Javid said: “We welcome this preliminary advice which will help us ensure our preparations for the autumn. We look forward to the committee’s final opinion in due course.
“Our first Covid-19 vaccination program is restoring freedom in this country, and our booster program will protect that freedom.
“We’re working with the NHS to make sure we can deploy this program quickly to keep people safe during the winter months.”
People are offered a single jab as a booster, making the rollout logistically easier for the NHS.
It is not yet known whether people will be offered the same or a different vaccine, but advisors said “all options are on the table”.
Officials will know more when they receive the results of the CovBoost study, which is expected to be released in August.
Experts previously said it was too early to say whether other people not listed in Level 1 or Level 2 will need a Covid-19 booster this winter.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, said: “We want to be at the forefront of the Covid-19 booster in order to keep the likelihood of loss of vaccination protection due to decreased immunity or variants as low as possible. Especially in the coming autumn and winter.
“The announcement of preliminary advice from JCVI is good news. It shows that vaccine experts are carefully thinking about how best to use vaccination to protect the most vulnerable and ensure that everyone’s life stays as normal as possible through the fall and winter.
“Of course we need to be guided by data, and more data will become available from studies on vaccine booster updates for JCVI later this summer, so we should all remember that this advice is tentative and will be between now and September can change. However, the JCVI has clearly set out the general direction of travel, which I agree with and which the ministers have accepted. “
The JCVI’s final guidance will be published before September.