Every adult in Britain will be offered a Covid booster jab by the end of this month, Boris Johnson pledged tonight, as he warned there was “a tidal wave of Omicron coming”.
Under plans for an unprecedented acceleration of the country’s vaccination campaign, from today anyone over the age of 18 will be eligible for a third Covid vaccination with plans to set up seven day a week mass walk-in vaccination centres around the country.
Over forty military teams will be brought in to provide logistics while hundreds of frontline NHS staff will be redeployed to help with the rollout.
So far just over 23 million people have had a booster jab, with the NHS carrying out half a million vaccinations a day for only the second time on Saturday.
But if all those adults who have been double jabbed so far come forward for a booster that means the NHS will have to vaccinate around a million people a day in the coming weeks.
It is also expected to result in some operations and non-urgent procedures being cancelled as doctors and nurses are re-deployed to the front line vaccination campaign.
Johnson said speeding up the vaccine rollout was critical as the country was facing “an emergency in our battle with the new variant”.
“No-one should be in any doubt: there is a tidal wave of Omicron coming,” he warned in a televised broadcast.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking Omicron can’t hurt you; can’t make you and your loved ones seriously ill. We’ve already seen hospitalisations doubling in a week in South Africa and we have patients with Omicron in hospital here in the UK right now.”
He added that scientists still did not know if Omicron was less severe than the existing Delta strain — but even if it was it could still overwhelm the NHS.
“Even if that proved to be true, we already know it is so much more transmissible, that a wave of Omicron through a population that was not boosted would risk a level of hospitalisation that could overwhelm our NHS and lead sadly to very many deaths,” he said. “We must act now.”
Johnson admitted that the new campaign would mean that some routine operations would be cancelled as staff were redeployed to the vaccine campaign.
But he added: “If we don’t do this now, the wave of Omicron could be so big that cancellations and disruptions, like the loss of cancer appointments, would be even greater next year.”
New modelling released over the weekend by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine had projected that the Omicron cases were almost certain to hit record levels during the winter and that there was a good chance that hospital admissions would exceed those seen last January — threatening to collapse the NHS.
Last night modellers said that the accelerated booster roll out should bring down those figures, although with most of the vulnerable already having received third jabs much of their benefit was already factored in.
Mark Walport, the former chief scientific advisor and a member of Sage, said that speeding up the boosters was clearly sensible, as well as vaccinating the vulnerable who might have missed out so far.
“With each wave of infection, spread initially occurs mainly in younger age groups who are the most socially active and then spreads to older, more vulnerable people,” he said.
“Even though the majority of these have now had three doses of vaccine and so are substantially protected from the worst effects of coronavirus infection, there are still significant numbers who are, at best, only partially vaccinated and there will still be some who suffer severe infection in spite of having been fully vaccinated.
“That is why government is now accelerating the vaccine booster programme, toughening the compulsory situations where masks must be worn, and encouraging working from home. But we should remember that the great success of the vaccine programme means that we are in a dramatically better position than a year ago and death rates from the infection have fallen by more than ten-fold in vaccinated people.”