The UK’s COVID-19 vaccine programme continues to protect the nation against the virus. We continue to make the vaccine accessible to all those eligible and urge everyone to take up the vaccine and booster offer without delay. Over 17 million people have now received their COVID-19 booster vaccine or third dose, ensuring the protection they’ve secured from their first two doses is maintained over the winter months.
On 29 November, in response to a request from the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for urgent advice in light of the Omicron variant, the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has published advice on the COVID-19 vaccination programme. Additional data regarding the Omicron variant will take some time to accrue and the JCVI have advised that waiting for such data before acting risks a suboptimal delayed response. Therefore, the JCVI has advised the following:
- Booster vaccination eligibility should be expanded to include all adults aged 18 years to 39 years.
- Booster vaccination should now be offered in order of descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a COVID-19 at-risk group. Booster vaccination should not be given within three months of completion of the primary course. This interval replaces the previous advice which was for a six-month interval.
- Severely immunosuppressed individuals who have completed their primary course (three doses) should be offered a booster dose with a minimum of three months between the third primary and booster dose.
- All children and young people aged 12 to 15 years should be offered a second dose (30-micrograms) of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.
Her Majesty’s Government (HMG) has accepted this advice and all four parts of the UK intend to follow the JCVI’s advice (JCVI advice on the UK vaccine response to the Omicron variant - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)).
The overall intention of the measures advised is to accelerate the deployment of COVID-19 vaccines to provide additional protection in the event it is needed as we come to better understand the risks posed by the Omicron variant. There are currently no data to indicate that Omicron infection is associated with a change in the pattern of susceptibility to serious COVID-19 (hospitalisation and death). Persons of older age, or who are in COVID-19 at-risk groups are likely to remain at higher risk from serious COVID-19; therefore, vaccination should be prioritised accordingly. The JCVI will continue to review the programme and options for maximising health benefits alongside the rapidly evolving data on the Omicron variant of concern.
With deployment of the extended booster vaccination offer and additional doses to children and young people imminent, I am now updating the House on the liabilities HMG has taken on in relation to further vaccine supply via this statement and the Departmental Minute containing a description of the liability undertaken. The agreement to provide indemnity with deployment of further booster doses to the population increases the statutory contingent liability of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.
Given the urgency with which we required JCVI advice and now deployment, we regret that it has not been possible to provide 14 sitting days’ notice to consider these issues in advance of announcing the planned extension to the booster programme in the UK.
Deployment of effective vaccines to eligible groups has been and remains a key part of the Government’s strategy to manage COVID-19. Willingness to accept the need for appropriate indemnities to be given to vaccine suppliers has helped to secure access to vaccines, with the expected benefits to public health and the economy alike, much sooner than may have been the case otherwise.
Given the exceptional circumstances we are in, and the terms on which developers have been willing to supply a COVID-19 vaccine, we along with other nations have taken a broad approach to indemnification proportionate to the situation we are in.
Even though the COVID-19 vaccines have been developed at pace, at no point and at no stage of development has safety been bypassed. The MHRA approval for use of the currently deployed vaccines clearly demonstrates that these vaccines have satisfied, in full, all the necessary requirements for safety, effectiveness, and quality. We are providing indemnities in the very unexpected event of any adverse reactions that could not have been foreseen through the robust checks and procedures that have been put in place.
I will update the House in a similar manner as and when other COVID-19 vaccines or additional doses of vaccines already in use in the UK are deployed.
HM Treasury has approved the proposal.
This statement has also been made in the House of Lords