Booster jabs, flu, and Covid: what will happen this winter?

At-risk Britons could receive third shot within weeks

(Image credit: Jeff J Mitchell/Pool/Getty Images)

The UK's most vulnerable people could receive a booster jab against covid-19 as soon as the next two weeks.

Anyone who is immunocompromised will "almost certainly" receive a booster jab, The Times reported. Scientists have said that people over 80 years-old would also "benefit" from a third dose.

However, the NHS's plan to begin a booster campaign as early as 6 September is dependent on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) issuing its advice on giving additional jabs.

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Sources close to the JCVI said that a booster campaign was likely to be authorised in stages, and a recommendation is due to be made in the next two weeks, the newspaper continued.

The news comes as the number of people in hospital with Covid in the UK reached the highest level seen since April, at more than 6,400 patients.

An Immunologist at Imperial College London, Professor Peter Openshaw, described a booster jab campaign as "a perfectly reasonable way to go" given the implications a surge in cases could have in the later months of the year.

Covid here to stay

Last winter Christmas plans were cancelled at the last minute for millions of families, with more than 1,000 daily Covid deaths during the January peak of the outbreak and schools closed once again. “It is very unlikely that this winter will be close to as bad as the last,” said The Times Science Editor Tom Whipple. However, “last winter was very bad indeed, which leaves a lot of room for manoeuvre”.

The Guardian’s Science Editor Ian Sample said “the overwhelming view among senior scientists is that coronavirus is here to stay”. Prof Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, tells him that “winter waves” of the disease will become a “particular threat” as we tend to see seasonal upsurges caused by respiratory viruses.

Flu bites

Others have warned that flu could potentially pose a bigger problem than Covid after cases plummeted last year due to social distancing.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in June: “We’ve had a very, very low prevalence of flu for the last few years, particularly virtually nil during lockdown, and we do know that when flu has been circulating in very low numbers immunity drops in the population, and it comes back to bite us.”

This is partly why the government is now preparing to “offer millions of Covid booster jabs to the most vulnerable people from September”, reported Samuel Lovett at The Independent.

Initially, it was thought that frontline health workers and the most vulnerable over-50s would be invited for a third Covid vaccine along with a flu jab. Then all over-50s and any high-risk under-50s would follow suit. Officials are hopeful that these groups, amounting to around 32 million people, will be protected “heading into winter”, said Lovett. However, he added that the plans are “not fixed and could change as more data is collected ahead of the end of August”.

Variants vs. vaccines

Health Secretary Javid has praised the UK’s vaccine programme for breaking the link between infection and hospitalisation, saying Covid-19 deaths remain “mercifully low” despite a rise in Delta variant cases.

But while this low death toll is “great news”, the virus’s history “suggests this could be one stage in a longer mutative journey”, said Edward Luce in the Financial Times.

He noted that “one clear pattern from the first 18 months of coronavirus is that each apparent certainty is overtaken by events”. As the West, particularly the US and western Europe, moves to post-pandemic normality, vaccination rates are tapering and there is concern that new mutations will outpace its ability to “inoculate its laggards”.

He believes the “risk that the west will be forced into another winter shutdown should not be downplayed”, and failing to help vaccinate the rest of the world is a “missed geopolitical opportunity for the west and a viral risk to its citizens”.

Indeed, while the UK’s vaccination rate is high, Prime Minister Johnson has said “you can never exclude that there will be some new disease, some new horror that we simply haven't budgeted for, or accounted for”.

The “nightmare scenario” would be high flu transmission on top of a new variant that is better at getting around our vaccines, says Whipple in The Times.

“Of course, in another scenario we have a mild flu season and strong vaccine protection from a successful booster campaign,” he said, “so at midnight on December 31 the nation looks forward at last to a glorious 2022.”

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