UK Extends COVID Booster Shots, Speeds Up Wait for Doses as Omicron Cases Surface

The British government announced on Monday that it is extending its COVID-19 booster vaccines to all adults 18 and older, allowing millions more to get the shot as Omicron variant cases rise.

Until now, only United Kingdom residents aged 40 and older or those especially vulnerable to the virus were able to get booster shots. The Associated Press reported that the change will allow an estimated 13 million more people to get the booster. So far, the U.K. has given about 17.5 million booster shots.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) also said boosters should be given at least three months after the second dose, taking three months off the current wait.

"With this new variant on the offensive, these measures will protect more people more quickly and make us better protected as a nation," Health Secretary Sajid Javid told lawmakers.

The announcement comes after eight more Omicron variant cases were found in the U.K., where cases now total 11. According to AP, the variant is feared to be more contagious and vaccine-resistant.

Though the variant was first found in South Africa, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said some of Scotland's cases were not linked to travel to that region, which suggests "some community transmission."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

London, Heathrow Airport, COVID-19
The new potentially more contagious Omicron variant of the coronavirus popped up in more European countries on Saturday, just days after being identified in South Africa, leaving governments around the world scrambling to stop the spread. Above, passengers get a COVID-19 test at a Testing Centre at Heathrow Airport in London on November 29, 2021. Frank Augstein/AP Photo

In further advice, the JCVI said young people aged 12 to 15 should be offered a second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, no sooner than 12 weeks after their first.

The spread of the Omicron variant, which has substantially more mutations than previous strains, has stoked fears that the coronavirus pandemic will find fresh legs over the coming months. It will take scientists a few weeks to get a greater understanding of how the new variant is spreading.

"We've always said we will get a variant that gives us heightened concern," said England's deputy medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam. "We are at that moment with Omicron. It is the new kid on the block for now.

Already, the British government has tightened rules on mask-wearing and testing of arrivals in the country. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday it was necessary to take "targeted and precautionary measures" in England.

The other nations of the U.K. have had more stringent rules in place over the past few months following the lifting of most lockdown restrictions. Sturgeon said she and her Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford, had written to Johnson asking for all people arriving in the U.K. to self-isolate for at least eight days. Johnson has said arrivals will need to take a high-standard PCR test by the end of their second day in the country and to self-isolate until they get a negative result.

The new rules for England, which will see mask-wearing made compulsory in shops and on public transport on Tuesday, though not in pubs and restaurants, are expected to be reviewed in three weeks. High school students in England are also being advised to wear masks in communal areas, such as corridors, but not in classrooms.

Van-Tam urged people to take up the boosters and laid out his hope that the vaccines will continue to keep a lid on serious disease even if they reduce the impact on infections.

"I'm asking people not to panic, but I'm not asking them either to completely ignore the weather forecast," he said.

Waterloo, London, train station
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said mask-wearing in shops and on public transportation will be required starting Tuesday. Above, commuters walk through ticket barriers in Waterloo train station, London, after disembarking a train on November 29, 2021. Matt Dunham/AP Photo