The NHS is planning a mass campaign of booster jabs against new variants of coronavirus as early as the autumn, in what the vaccines minister suggested would become an annual effort to prevent Covid-19 as the virus keeps mutating.
High-street pharmacists and retired doctors who were not enlisted in the first phase of the vaccination programme could be involved in the effort to protect the UK against new strains, according to people familiar with the logistics.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that the government was expecting annual inoculations to take place every autumn in much the same way as flu prevention, adding: “Where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, you rapidly produce a variant of vaccine, and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation.”
In a statement the NHS said it had “mobilised efficiently and speedily to ensure that new vaccines and treatments are rolled out as they become available”.
NHS leaders believe that the timing of the extra shots means they could be delivered alongside the annual seasonal flu vaccinations long offered to over-65s, and for which eligibility was last year extended to all over-50s.
Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, told the health select committee of MPs last month that it “would be great if Covid vaccine and flu vaccine ends up being combined into a single vaccine, which we might see for, if not this winter, then future winters as well”.
Zahawi said that more public sector workers — including teachers — would get their jab once the initial priority groups had their injections.
The government hopes to have given first jabs to all over-70s, healthcare workers and the most vulnerable by mid-February. By Saturday just over 12m had been inoculated as the NHS continued one of the world’s most successful rollouts of Covid vaccines. Almost 1,000 jabs were given per minute on Saturday, Zahawi said.
He also said the government had no plans for a vaccine passport despite reports last week, telling Times Radio that a domestic vaccine passport would be “discriminatory” because the government did not mandate inoculation. If other countries demanded proof of vaccination British travellers could ask their GPs for their record as proof they have had the jab.
The World Health Organization has said the UK has a moral imperative to start giving away some of its stockpile once the over-50s have been vaccinated, a target that the government aims to reach by May.
Ministers have hinted that they might start sharing the UK stockpile with other countries later in the year but have not made any specific commitments.
David Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid-19, told Sky News that the only way to deal with a global pandemic would be to “give fair shares across the world” now.
He told the Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme that he was hopeful world leaders would realise in the coming weeks “that a few countries vaccinating a lot of people and then poorer countries having very limited vaccines is not really the way to go ahead — economically, socially, environmentally, and indeed, morally”.
High-income countries have procured 4.2bn vaccine doses, almost twice the combined total for more populous middle- and low-income countries, according to the Duke Global Health Innovation Center.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, said last week that the government wanted to protect every UK citizen but then “play our part to ensure the whole world can get the jab”.