Only 3.8million had received a booster vaccine by yesterday
Health chiefs warned that vaccine top-up jabs were not being taken up as quickly as the initial doses were rolled out. As daily virus deaths hit a seven-month high of 223, one expert said the next peak “could be as serious as the last”.
Sir David King, former Government chief scientific adviser, added that the virus was “rising to yet another peak”.
He said he did not understand why booster injections had been deployed “extremely slowly” after the swift rollout of first and second shots.
“It’s very surprising, given the success of the vaccination scheme which was conducted through the NHS in an amazingly professional way.
“I’ve had my booster but I do know many older people who haven’t.”
Ministers are so far sticking to their stance of not reimposing restrictions ‑ but Downing Street aides said that the Prime Minister is “keeping a very close eye” on the rising rates of coronavirus infection.
The daily number of fresh cases was the highest in three months at almost 50,000 on Monday; yesterday a further 43,738 infections were confirmed, along with 223 deaths ‑ the most in a single day since March 9.
Health officials are also monitoring a subvariant of the Delta strain, AY.4.2, which made up almost 10 percent of all infections in England in the fortnight ending October 9.
No 10 aides insisted there is “no evidence” that it spreads easier.
Prof Neil Ferguson, of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was “critical” that the rollout of boosters and first doses for teens is quickened.
He warned that some curbs on society may be needed this winter.
Covid winter plan explained
Booster doses will be offered this winter to all vulnerable groups who were prioritised during the initial rollout.
They include over-50s, frontline healthcare workers, care home residents and patients with underlying health conditions that put them at risk of severe Covid-19.
However, people do not become eligible until at least six months after their second dose. Scientific advisers said this should provide longer-lasting protection than a shorter gap.
People should wait until they are invited to book their dose. In some cases, they may be offered Covid-19 and flu jabs at the same time.
The epidemiologist said the public should be aware that “we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had” and urged caution, such as the wearing of masks.
Prof Ferguson claimed it was “very unlikely we’ll see anything like the levels of deaths we saw last year.
“Coming into the winter there may be a Plan B which needs to be implemented, which involves some rolling back of measures, but I doubt that we’ll ever get close to [the] lockdown we were in in January.”
The Government’s Covid data dashboard suggests up to 8.7million people in England are eligible for a booster, having had a second jab at least six months ago.
But NHS statistics showed that only 3.8million had received a top-up by yesterday. The total includes a small number of third, primary, vaccine doses for those people with weakened immune systems.
Amanda Pritchard, chief executive of the NHS, defended the pace of the top-up rollout and said there was “plenty of capacity”.
She told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee that boosters had been administered at twice the rate of first doses last year: “There is no delay in sending out invitations. Within days of people becoming eligible, they will get their invitations.”
But, she added, “they are not coming forward as quickly when they receive their invitation as we certainly saw for the first jabs”.
Around 1.8million more invitations will be issued this week.
Ms Pritchard continued: “Boosters really do make a difference in boosting immunity. If people get their invitations this week, or they’ve already had them, there is plenty of capacity so please come forward.”
The Government will this week launch the next stage of its winter vaccines publicity drive via TV and radio adverts.
Writing in the Daily Express today, Vaccines Minister Maggie Throup says it is vital to continue the jabs momentum: “It is so important everyone eligible for their jabs comes forward as soon as possible.” Hospital leaders backed her call.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, said that boosters were “a vital step in maintaining our defences”.
She added: “Immunity levels dip over time. This…means there is a continuing risk from the disease, especially for the most vulnerable.”
The number of Covid patients in hospitals in England hit 6,099 yesterday, the highest in a month, including 733 being treated in intensive care. Downing Street aides said the Government was “not complacent” about rising cases.
They added that hospital admissions and deaths were “an order of magnitude lower” than earlier on in the pandemic.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that there were “no plans” to use Plan B contingency measures and stressed the importance of the booster programme.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs there was “huge pressure” on the NHS, adding: “We can all see this wherever we live. It is picking up over the winter and usually winters are tough for the NHS but this winter…is going to be particularly tough.
“The pandemic is still ongoing, this flu season will be particularly tough.”
Mr Javid said extra funds were going to the health service.
“We are going to set out very shortly with the NHS a detailed programme for the winter and how we can better deal with the pressures.”
Covid vaccine doses for 12 to 15-year-olds are being accelerated
Health chiefs are also accelerating delivery of first doses for children aged 12 to 15 by letting them book an appointment at a vaccine centre instead of waiting to get the jab at school.
Mr Javid continued: “It is important for anyone who has been invited and who is eligible for a vaccine ‑ including young people ‑ that they do come forward and take up that offer.”
The research charity Blood Cancer UK today raised fresh concerns about the “confusing” rollout of the third primary doses for people who may not have a strong immune response to the jabs.
It said analysis had found that one in 20 Covid patients in intensive care was immunocompromised, up from one in 30 earlier in the pandemic.
Comment by Maggie Throup
Our vaccine rollout continues to be a phenomenal success.
So far, around 95million doses have been given to those eligible. We know that every jab administered helps strengthen the wall of defence that our vaccines have built against Covid-19.
It is vital we maintain this protection as we go into winter, which is why the booster programme was launched.
The aim has always been to help prolong protection and reduce infection and serious disease.
At the same time, we are rolling out the largest flu vaccine programme in history ‑ with more than 35million people now eligible. I’ve recently had my flu jab and would encourage everyone else to get theirs.
We know how serious both these viruses can be. They spread easily, they can lead to hospitalisation, and sadly they can be fatal.
Almost four million people have now had a booster or third jab in the first month of the rollout in England alone. That is fantastic progress and we need to ensure that momentum continues.
As well as being hugely grateful to everyone who has come forward for their vaccines, I also want to pay tribute to NHS staff and volunteers who have made the programme the success it continues to be.
All those eligible who have been invited for their booster can now either book online or by phoning 119.
With the combined threat of flu and Covid-19 this winter it is so important everyone eligible for their jabs comes forward as soon as possible to protect themselves, their loved ones and the NHS.
Maggie Throup is Vaccines Minister