People over 50 and the clinically vulnerable will be offered their second dose of a Covid-19 vaccine eight weeks after the first in a bid to dampen any impact from the Indian variant of coronavirus.
Boris Johnson told a Downing Street press conference that second doses – which give people maximum protection against Covid-19 – will be brought forward from the planned 12-week interval to eight weeks.
He said there was no evidence that a rise in cases of the Indian variant was translating into unmanageable pressures on the NHS in terms of hospital admissions, which at the moment remain “broadly flat”.
The Prime Minister said: “I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our road map and we will proceed with our plan to move to step three in England from Monday.
“But I have to level with you that this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step four in June.
“I must stress that we will do whatever it takes to keep the public safe.”
Mr Johnson said that if the variant turned out to be much more transmissible than other variants, the country could face “hard choices”.
England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, said the variant was more transmissible than the Kent variant of concern, which has now spread to become a dominant variant globally.
It is expected that the Indian variant will overtake Kent to become dominant in the UK, though there is currently no evidence to suggest vaccines do not work against it.
Mr Johnson said: “I believe we should trust in our vaccines to protect the public whilst monitoring the situation as it develops very closely because the race between our vaccination programme and the virus may be about to become a great deal tighter and it’s more important than ever therefore that people get the protection of a second dose.
“So following advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation we will accelerate remaining second doses to the over-50s and those clinically vulnerable right across the country so those doses come just eight weeks after the first dose.”
The expected rollout of first doses to younger age groups is not expected to be delayed by accelerating second doses to the over-50s and vulnerable.
The PM said the army would be deployed on the streets of Blackburn and Bolton, handing out tests to help the surge testing efforts.
The variant is now in at least 15 areas of England, where councils and Public Health England (PHE) officials are working to contain any clusters.
This includes surge testing, encouraging people to isolate if they test positive and longer opening hours at vaccination centres.
“If you’re seeing loved ones, think really carefully about the risk to them, especially if they haven’t had that second dose or if it hasn’t yet had time to take full effect,” Mr Johnson said.
He added: “I want us to trust people to be responsible, and to do the right thing. That’s the way to live with this virus while protecting the NHS and restoring our freedoms.
“It’s very clear now we’re going to have to live with this new variant of the virus for some time so let’s work together, and let’s exercise caution and common sense.”
The Prime Minister said that the UK’s surveillance data is now so advanced, that it would see well ahead of time if the NHS was likely to come under unsustainable pressure.
“That gives us the confidence to continue moving forwards for now,” he said.
However, he urged people to “think twice” ahead of travelling to areas with higher incidences of the Indian variant and staying with family and friends within those areas..
“I would urge people just to think twice about that,” he said.
“We want people in those areas to recognise that there is extra risk, an extra threat of disruption to progress caused by this new variant and just to exercise their discretion and judgment in a way I’m sure that they have been throughout this pandemic.”