Ministers were told to get their act together on Covid booster vaccines today by figures across the political spectrum as unofficial data suggested daily infection numbers may have already breached 80,000.
The Government has resisted growing pressure to revert to its winter ‘Plan B’ and bring back masks and WFH guidance, leading to fears that people could be stung by last-minute Christmas curbs once again.
England’s Covid booster jab drive is struggling to get off the mark, leaving millions of vulnerable people without a crucial third dose heading into what is expected to be one of the toughest winters ever for the NHS.
Just 4million out of the 8.7m patients in England who are eligible for a booster now have had one, including just a third of care home residents and half of over-80s. The Government and the NHS claim the slow start to the rollout is due to a dip in demand among the public.
But there have been growing reports of old and vulnerable people being turned away from clinics because they had not been sent an official invitation, despite having their second dose six months ago.
The sluggish programme comes against the backdrop of rising case numbers, with nearly 50,000 Britons testing positive each day. Britain’s largest symptom-tracking study, however, estimated today that the true number of infections is actually closer to 80,000 — which would dwarf the level at the peak of the second wave.
Tony Blair warned today that having more than 80,000 daily cases was ‘unsustainable’, as he called for masks and other curbs to be reintroduced. He also set out a strategy to fix the autumn booster rollout, which includes setting a daily target of 500,000 boosters, re-opening mass vaccination centres and using AstraZeneca doses.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for the Government to cut the gap between second and third doses from six to five months to speed up the lacklustre scheme, like Israel is doing.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the ‘stalling’ booster programme was to blame for the country’s escalating Covid crisis, as he warned that at the current rate the jab drive won’t be completed until March. Fewer than 200,000 boosters are being deployed per day.
Only around 4.05million(purple line) out of the 8.7million eligible people (green line) in England have received the crucial third dose, prompting ministers to urge people to come forward for their inoculations. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair today demanded the Government sets concrete targets to speed the drive up to jab 500,000 a day. It’s currently only reaching about 200,000. The graph shows the number of booster jabs that have been administered each day (orange bars) the cumulative booster doses given in October (red line) and the cumulative, compared to the rollout of second doses that were dished out in April (blue line)
Sajid Javid (pictured during the Downing Street press conference yesterday evening), the Health Secretary, promised to speed up the vaccine drive and encourage more people to come forward. But he failed to address concerns about NHS bureaucracy and a lack of capacity
The sluggish programme comes against the backdrop of rising case numbers, with nearly 50,000 Britons testing positive each day. Britain’s largest symptom-tracking study, however, estimated today that the true number of infections is actually closer to 82,000 — which would dwarf the rate at the peak of the second wave. King’s College London scientists running the study estimated 81,823 people were getting infected with Covid daily in the week ending October 16, up 17 per cent from 69,993 the week before. The graph shows the number of infections recorded among all people (blue line) and those recorded among double-jabbed Britons (red line)
Conservative MP Jeremy Hunt said: ‘At its peak in the spring we were jabbing 400,000 people a day. Now it’s less than 200,000 people a day.
‘If you look at the higher hospitalisations, cases and death rates, compared to countries like France and Germany, the heart of it is not actually things like mask wearing and Covid passports, it is their higher vaccine immunity.’
He continued: ‘Does it really matter when it’s only nine weeks until the Christmas holidays if someone has their booster jab after five months?
‘And should we not look at whether there should be flexibility in that decision so we can get more people in more quickly for their booster jabs?’
Meanwhile, King’s College London’s symptom tracking study found that cases among Britons has risen by a fifth in a week to the highest level this year.
It 81,823 people were getting infected daily in the week ending October 16, up 17 per cent from 69,993 the week before, and nearly double the 45,000 officially reported each day.
Data from the study — which is based on reports from around 750,000 users of the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app — suggests one in 63 people in the UK have symptomatic Covid.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned at a Downing Street press conference last night that cases could go as high as 100,000 per day in the coming weeks.
Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist who leads the study, warned that the UK is ‘really in trouble’ and ‘needs to act now to prevent the situation from escalating out of control ahead of winter’.
With cases rising, a report by the former prime minister’s think-tank, the Tony Blair Institute, said the Government needed to act ‘rapidly and decisively’ to avoid the need for another lockdown as winter approaches.
It urged ministers to set a daily target for booster jabs, reactivate the vaccine infrastructure set up earlier in the year and start using the AstraZeneca vaccine for boosters.
And it called on ministers to ‘urgently explore’ the options for introducing a Covid passport while reinstating mandatory face coverings for crowded indoor public spaces.
Mr Blair said that without action now, there was a danger that further restrictions would be required in the weeks ahead.
His recommendations were echoed by Jonathan Ashworth in the the Commons today, who warned that the booster jab programme is estimated to finish in March on current trends.
He told MPs: ‘Yesterday the Secretary of State said the pressures on the NHS are sustainable, but we have ambulances backed up outside hospitals, patients waiting hours upon hours in A&E, cancer operations cancelled and NHS staff exhausted.
‘Has there ever been in the history of the NHS a more complacent attitude from a secretary of state as we head into winter?’
He added: ‘Isn’t the truth that we are in this situation because the vaccination programme is now stalling? Ministers cannot blame the public when two million haven’t even been invited for a booster jab and on current trends we won’t complete the booster programme until March 2022.’
He called on the Government to commit to 500,000 jabs a day. Mr Ashworth said: ‘With infections running so high, ministers need to, if I may, stop vacillating and get vaccinating. The wall of defence is crumbling, we know with this virus you have to get ahead of it, otherwise it gets ahead of you.’
According to the KCL symptom study, new daily cases are on the rise in all age groups, with the highest levels spotted among 10 to 19-year-olds, with one in 29 of infected.
Children aged nine and under are the next-most infectious group, with one in 44 of them having Covid symptoms. Infection rates are also higher than the national average among people in their 40s (one in 46) and 30s (one in 54).
Meanwhile, those in their 20s are less likely to be infectious (one in 76), as well as age groups over 50 (between one in 102 and one in 600).
Within England, Covid cases are highest in the North West (one in 52), East Midlands (one in 54) , Yorkshire and the Humber (one in 54) and the West Midlands (one in 55).
Professor Spector said: ‘With over 80,000 new cases a day the UK really is in trouble.
‘This hasn’t happened overnight, but frustratingly our calls for a more cautious approach to Covid management have gone unheeded, despite the upward trends we’ve reported now for several weeks.
‘As feared, cases have spilled over into the older age group which will certainly lead to more hospitalisations and deaths. The UK needs to act now to prevent the situation from escalating out of control ahead of winter.’
But several Tories came out in defence of the Government’s decision to hold its nerve on restrictions, adding that constituents on the ground did not want to have their freedoms pinched again.
Speaking in the Commons, former health minister Steve Brine said there was a ‘depressingly familiar drumbeat towards Plan B, Plan B+, Plan C in the papers today.’
Holly Mumby-Croft, MP for Scunthorpe, said: ‘When I speak to people in Scunthorpe they are really concerned about any potential increase in restrictions, and they’re quite right to be worried about that, but we also understand that it’s an incredibly challenging situation for the Government to balance.
‘Can she once again reassure people in Scunthorpe and our surrounding villages that should the Government come to the conclusion that further restrictions are necessary that this House will have a proper opportunity to debate, to discuss and to vote on those measures?’
Health minister Maggie Throup replied: ‘We are in Plan A and we still have more to do in Plan A to put all the measures in place to protect our communities … to continue to build that wall of defence and to continue to have our freedoms.’