Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson will on Tuesday promote his master plan to take society through winter while “living with the virus” in the hope that booster jabs and an ambitious flu vaccine drive will be enough to prevent the need for further lockdowns.
As England heads into its second winter season with the coronavirus, Mr Johnson is determined to keep the economy open and prevent the NHS from becoming overwhelmed by Covid patients.
Before the announcement, Mr Johnson said: “The pandemic is far from over, but thanks to our phenomenal vaccine programme, new treatments and testing we are able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms.
“I will set out a clear plan for the autumn and winter, when the virus has a natural advantage, to protect the gains we have made.”
Later this month, a booster campaign will be rolled out which will offer a third shot of the Covid vaccine to all over 50s, starting with the over 70s and those in other vulnerable categories.
The Lancet medical journal has said that a third jab is unnecessary for fully-vaccinated people and despite the threat of the Delta variant, “booster doses for the general population are not appropriate at this stage in the pandemic.”
A study conducted by the journal said: “Although the idea of further reducing the number of Covid-19 cases by enhancing immunity in vaccinated people is appealing, any decision to do so should be evidence-based and consider the benefits and risks for individuals and society.”
Mr Johnson will set out his blueprint at a press conference on Tuesday amid resistance from Tory MPs against the government’s decision to offer the Pfizer jab to children aged 12 to 15 in England.
On Monday, ministers announced the policy following advice from the chief medical officers of the four nations of the UK.
The UK's Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had previously not advised the step, saying the medical benefits were only marginal.
However, in their most recent advice the medical officers stressed the impact of missed schooling due to Covid on children’s education and mental well-being.
Some Conservative MPs were highly critical of the move, including one who works as an NHS doctor.
Dr Caroline Johnson insisted she was “not comfortable” with the reasoning behind the decision to vaccinate children, while fellow Tory MP and former party leader Iain Duncan Smith warned “family disputes” could result from discussions over whether or not a child should get jabbed.
Mr Duncan Smith said: “Where there is a dispute we say that the school makes a decision as to whether or not that child has the capacity to make that decision.
“Now, we know, and this is the point, the pressure will grow on the child. This greater good concept which says, ‘Well the school may be in trouble if you don’t take the vaccine and your class may be in deep difficulty’.
“There is no way of legislating for that. I simply say to him, this is a real problem for us, it will lead to disputes in families and real problems about children’s mental health in the opposite direction as they are put under pressure.”
On the issue of parental consent, Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the choice of each child and parent will be respected.
He said: “We do know that parents and young people want choice and I think the CMOs’ decision will give them choice.
“I think they need to be properly informed and I think it needs to be respected that they choose to have the vaccine or they don’t choose to have the vaccine — that needs to be respected.”
However, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said children will have the right to overrule their parent or guardian if they disagree on whether to be vaccinated.
He told Sky News this morning: “On the very rare occasions where there is a difference of opinion between the parent and the 12- to 15-year-old, where the parent for example doesn’t want to give consent but the 12- to 15-year-old wants to have the vaccine then the first step is the clinician, the school immunisation service, will bring the parent and the 12- to 15-year-old, the child, together to see whether they can reach consent.
“If that is not possible then if the child is deemed to be competent … then the child can have the vaccine.”
Children will be handed leaflets and consent forms in school and the consent of parents will be sought, he said.
Mr Zahawi added that there would be “no stigmatisation” of parents who choose not to jab their children.
He said further lockdowns in England will be an “absolutely last resort” and ministers are hoping the coming “massive booster campaign” together with vaccines will be enough.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference this morning, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, warned of a “bumpy” winter ahead.
He said when the flu season rolls in over the coming months, the UK must “stay on top of things”.
He added: “But we also know that this pandemic is still active. We are not past the pandemic, we are in an active phase still.
“We know that this winter could quite possibly be bumpy at times and we know that other respiratory viruses such as flu and RSV are highly likely to make their returns.”
Prof Van-Tam praised the UK’s “incredibly successful” vaccination campaign, saying to date it has “probably averted” around 24 million coronavirus cases and 112,000 deaths.
Mr Johnson has been scheduled to lead a Downing Street news conference later on Tuesday — although it is unclear whether he will still do so following the death on Monday of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl.
A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned of a “rough winter” ahead for Britons due to the combination of coronavirus, flu and other respiratory conditions that will make a comeback.
Calum Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool, told BBC Breakfast “it’s not just going to be coronavirus that’s causing us trouble”, and suggested face masks may need to be brought back in some regions.
He added: “The other seasonal viruses are going to come back.
“Hand hygiene and social distancing reduced influenza, it got rid of influenza, and many of the other viruses.
“Now that we’re opening up society, we’ve got to… live with not just Covid but the flu will come back, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) bronchiolitis will come back, so I think we’re going to have a bit of a rough winter.”
Asked how Christmas might compare to last year, he said he was unsure but predicted that the NHS would have a “really tough time”.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if local public health officials would end up calling for the mandatory face mask rule to return.
Mr Semple said the forthcoming Covid booster jab campaign will “make a difference for a few people that are frail and elderly and have high risks, where their immunity might just need a bit of boosting, and it’s to try and give them an extra leg up to protect them”.