Ministers announced a huge expansion of the booster vaccination campaign on Saturday evening, amid warnings that new restrictions will be needed imminently to prevent tens of thousands of deaths.
With new Covid measures being discussed in Whitehall and allegations that people are being turned away from walk-in relief centers, third jabs will be open to people in their 30s from Monday in England. Those who had their second jab three months or more ago will be eligible.
It follows a warning from leading scientists that failure to impose stricter Covid restrictions to limit the spread of the Omicron variant could result in an additional 25,000 to 75,000 deaths over the next five months. The researchers, based at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, predicted that a massive wave of infections was likely to sweep the country in January. At best, that could lead to around 175,000 hospitalizations and 24,700 deaths by the end of April next year.
However, in their most pessimistic scenario, there could be as many as 75,000 deaths and a total of 492,000 hospital admissions – the latter figure being almost twice as high as the peak in hospitalizations seen in January 2021. This would put a struggling NHS under severe strain.
The team behind the study said the actual outcome will depend on how well the Omicron variant escapes vaccine protection and whether the booster shots are effective in restoring protection against the virus.
“We may have to endure tighter restrictions to ensure the NHS does not get overwhelmed,” said Dr Rosanna Barnard, co-head of the study. “Wearing a mask, social distancing and booster shots are essential, but may not be enough. No one wants to suffer another lockdown, but last resort measures may be needed to protect healthcare services. “
But the government’s prospects of successfully imposing further restrictions on the public were questioned on Saturday by senior behavioral experts. They warned that reports of parties in Downing Street, where Covid rules were allegedly flouted last year, have sparked widespread anger and resentment.
“It’s always harder to reapply restrictions because people are tired and generally fed up,” said Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh. “But now it’s going to be even more difficult because the confidence has been eroded to a very important level. People are really fed up with government. And if you don’t trust the government, why would you do what the government asked you to do? “
Bauld said it was likely many more people would break the rules if asked to limit the number of people allowed inside at one time, as happened last winter. “Many are likely to say: I’m sick of it, I don’t trust this government and I want to see my friends and family, so I’m just going to ignore the rule.”
The government is also under extreme pressure from its own backbench MPs following the imposition of Plan B measures last week.
Boris Johnson faces his biggest parliamentary rebellion on Tuesday, which means restrictions will likely only be written into law with Labor backing.
The rebellion will make it harder for Johnson to impose new measures if they are recommended in the days to come. Sources from Whitehall said it took time to see what effect the measures already imposed were having on the course of the virus.
According to the UK Health Security Agency, an additional 633 confirmed cases of the Omicron variant were reported across the UK on Saturday. This brings the total number of confirmed cases to 1,898.
While those aged 30 to 39 will be able to book their booster starting Monday, those under 30 have taken to online forums to find vaccination centers willing to ignore government guidelines and offer them the vaccine.
On Reddit, nearly 25,000 people are members of the UK GetJabbed community, where they share clinic locations in cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool offering boosters to younger kids.
A poster pointing to a vaccination clinic in Essex said they were offered the vaccine within five minutes of arrival, “no questions about age or life in the area”. Another said they received a vaccine in Smethwick, near Birmingham, while others under 40 said they were vaccinated in Woking, Basildon, Hounslow and Bristol on Saturday.
Labor has also claimed that given current trends the government is on track to miss its target of giving everyone a boost by the end of January. “The NHS should continue to prioritize those most at risk, including the elderly, homebound and residents of nursing homes, but there is no reason others who are eligible and willing to receive their booster shots now should be turned down, ”said Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary. “We want to make sure that everyone can enjoy Christmas safely this year, as well as protecting our NHS. The best way to do this is to boost the recall campaign.
An NHS spokesperson said: ‘NHS sites should vaccinate those most at risk against the coronavirus first according to JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] advice – which is currently people aged 40 and over, as well as those with health problems and healthcare workers, but this will be extended to those over 30 from Monday.
“The NHS is mobilizing quickly to ensure that people are offered life-saving protection as quickly and safely as possible. Therefore, when you are called, we strongly recommend that you get your callback reminder. “
Health chiefs have warned the NHS is now under such stress that the additional prioritization of boosters would impact elsewhere in the service. “The NHS will obviously do everything possible to speed up the booster injections if that is what is needed,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, who represents the NHS trusts. “But we have to recognize the complex logistics involved, as the government chief medical officer pointed out [last] the week.
“We also need to recognize the wide range of other pressures the NHS is under. As incredible as our staff are, they cannot deliver the impossible. As we have seen [last] week with general practitioners and more than 75 health check-ups and new patients, we are now at the stage where prioritizing a new pressure means deprioritizing elsewhere.
Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious diseases at the University of Edinburgh, added that Omicron was now spreading so rapidly that people were now “very likely” to meet someone infected with the Covid-19 variant .
As a result, many people could still end up in the hospital even if the coronavirus mutation turns out to cause milder symptoms than the Delta variant, as some researchers have suggested.