Coming 'Blizzard' of New Infections Prompts U.K. to Broaden COVID Vaccine Booster Program

The U.K. government broadened its COVID-19 vaccine booster program Monday to include younger people as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a "blizzard" of new virus infections during the winter months, the Associated Press reported.

Booster shots from Pfizer or Moderna were previously only available for people aged 50 and older, as well as vulnerable young people and those working in hospitals and care facilities. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, the independent group of scientists that advises the British government on vaccines, said that all residents aged 40 to 49 will now be able to get a third shot six months after their first, the AP reported.

The committee also approved second doses of the Pfizer shot 12 weeks after the first shot for those aged 16 and 17, though it hasn't authorized a second dose for children between 12 and 15 years old. The new vaccine offerings will help the U.K. "extend our protection into 2022," the committee said.

Concerned that Britain could soon see another COVID-19 wave as some European countries like Austria and the Netherlands enter new lockdowns, Johnson accepted the recommendations and encouraged people to get their booster doses.

"Our friends on the continent have been forced to respond with various degrees of new restrictions, from full lockdowns, to lockdowns for the unvaccinated, to restrictions on business opening hours and restrictions on social gatherings," Johnson said.

"We don't yet know the extent to which this new wave will wash up on our shores, but history shows we cannot afford to be complacent," he added.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.K. Expanding Booster Program
The U.K. government broadened its COVID-19 vaccine booster program Monday to include younger people as Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned of a “blizzard” of new virus infections during the winter months. Johnson gestures with Arzou Miah, as he visits Woodgrange GP Surgery vaccination center, in East London, Monday, November 15, 2021. Jeremy Selwyn/Pool Photo via AP

Compared to most other countries in Europe, the U.K. has recorded high, but relatively stable, levels of coronavirus infections in recent months following the lifting of most restrictions in the summer. However, in the past few weeks, a number of European countries have seen sharp infection spikes, prompting renewed concerns about the outlook for the U.K.

There have been signs over the past few days of a renewed uptick in cases in the U.K. particularly among students. More than 260,000 confirmed infections were recorded in the past week, up 6 percent on the previous week.

The government has so far resisted reimposing mandatory laws such as requiring people to wear masks indoors or introducing vaccine passports.

Johnson said there was nothing currently in the data which suggested a need to increase restrictions in England, under its contingency Plan B though he would not rule out more restrictions if the pressure on the National Health Service becomes untenable. Currently, the number of people in hospitals with the virus is around 8,500, which though high is far down on the near 40,000 in January. Daily COVID deaths are running at around 150, taking the total to nearly 143,000, Europe's second-highest behind Russia.

A raft of evidence over recent weeks has shown that immunity levels among double-jabbed individuals starts to wane a few months after the second dose of vaccine, though they are still far less likely to suffer severe disease than those who are unvaccinated.

"What's happening is if you can get your booster then your immunity goes right back up to 95 percent," he said. "So far we've got 75 percent of everybody over 70 getting a booster, that's a huge number of people, but it's that further 25 percent that will make all the difference to winter, to Christmas, to our plans going forward, because it's that extra level of protection that we really need."

The expansion of the booster program comes as a new study from the U.K. Health Security Agency showed adults over 50 had at least 93 percent reduced risk of getting a symptomatic case of COVID-19 two weeks after their booster.

The government's chief medical adviser, Chris Whitty, said more restrictions may be necessary if cases start to rise at the same pace as some countries in Europe.

"They're not currently going up in the kind of numbers you're seeing in continental Europe, but obviously if they did that would be a situation where we would have to look again," he said.

"I think we have got a difficult winter ahead of us," he added.

U.K. COVID Booster Program
Booster shots from Pfizer or Moderna were only available for people aged 50 and older up until now, as well as vulnerable young people and those working in hospitals and care facilities. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization said that all residents aged 40 to 49 will now be able to get a third shot six months after their first. A woman receives her COVID-19 vaccination booster jab at the Sir Ludwig Guttmann Health & Wellbeing Centre on November 10, 2021 in the Stratford area of London. Leon Neal/Getty Images