The UK has pinned its hopes of beating the Omicron variant of coronavirus on a major expansion of the vaccine booster programme to all adults and a halving of the gap between the second and third doses to three months.
As confirmed cases of Omicron in the UK rose to 11, officials said ministers could introduce further measures “within days” if the data pointed to the need for a tougher response. Contingency planning is also under way in Whitehall, including for more stringent mask regulations and a potential work-from-home order.
Those aged 12 to 15 in England are to be offered a second dose of a Covid vaccine 12 weeks after their first jab. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are expected to follow suit.
Following new guidance from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, Sajid Javid, health secretary, said people who are severely immunocompromised would be offered an additional booster jab, marking their fourth dose of a Covid vaccine.
The new measures came amid growing concern over the global spread of the Omicron variant, first identified in South Africa last week.
“The latest indication is that [the new variant] spreads very rapidly . . . there is a reasonable chance that our current vaccines may be impacted,” Javid told MPs.
“In the race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences.”
Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said “the number of mutations” that had already been detected “makes us worry about a possible effect on vaccine effectiveness”.
One senior government insider said ministers might not wait for two to three weeks of data if other indicators showed that the Omicron variant required a tougher response.
“They would be willing to pull the trigger on other measures sooner if the data showed it was necessary,” the person said. “We could easily see further measures in the space of a few days if data looks bad.”
One senior civil servant said contingency planning was under way for further measures. “More could be done on mandatory masks indoors, that would be the first step if required. Then, if needed, working from home over Christmas would be next as most people will do that already.”
The Department of Health declined to comment. Another senior government official said: “We do not recognise these proposals which have not been put to ministers.”
One cabinet minister said the imperative was to do “whatever necessary” to save Christmas.
Some Conservative MPs expressed concern at the return of restrictions. Mark Harper, chair of the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tories, queried the mechanism by which the Omicron variant would be “identified and communicated” to those people tested positive.
The UK is the first country to cut the gap between a second dose and a booster shot to three months. Israel, the first country to give the green light to a booster campaign, has a five-month wait, while US and EU citizens who received either a BioNTech/Pfizer or a Moderna shot are advised to wait six months.
John Roberts, a member of the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, said the change to a three-month dosing interval meant an additional 15m people would become eligible immediately with a further 1.5m added by the end of the year.
Roberts warned that an expansion of the programme was “academic unless we can add meaningful capacity to the booster delivery programme”, which is currently running at just over 2m shots a week.
Pfizer is contracted to deliver 100m doses to the UK by the end of the year, enough to cover a boosters-for-all strategy. According to FT calculations, the UK has at least 40m of the shots remaining, and over 20m half dose boosters from Moderna.
New coronavirus measures come into force in England from 4am on Tuesday, with people required to wear face coverings while travelling on public transport and while in retail settings such as supermarkets and hairdressers.
Individuals travelling into the UK, regardless of their vaccination status, must take a day-two PCR test and self-isolate until they have a negative result.