The government’s scientific advisers are expected to recommend an expansion of the booster programme to all adults in the UK, as a further six cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant were confirmed in Scotland.
The booster programme will be expanded to all over-18s and the six-month gap between second and third doses will be “substantially reduced” to maximise immunity as the Omicron variant begins to spread, following new guidance from the government’s vaccine advisers.
Scientists believe that the new Omicron variant, which was identified in South Africa last week and has already spread to multiple countries around the world, may be more transmissible than the highly infectious Delta variant and has mutations that could make it resistant to vaccines.
Children aged between 12 and 15 years old will also be offered a second dose of a Covid jab. The advice is expected to be handed down by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on Monday, after the group convened an emergency meeting on Saturday.
“Mutations raise [the] significant likelihood that [the Omicron variant] will be able to evade neutralising antibodies to a significant degree but not entirely,” said one JCVI member. “[The] only response available with respect to vaccines is to maximise [antibody levels] in blood of as many people as possible as soon as possible to try to compensate for those theoretical concerns.”
Nine cases of the new variant had been identified in the UK by Monday, with three confirmed in England over the weekend. Dozens more are being treated as suspected cases, people familiar with the matter have told the Financial Times.
Ministers will on Monday set out legislation to contain the spread of the new variant, with some lockdown-sceptic Conservative MPs calling for a vote on the proposals by the end of Tuesday.
Under the new rules, face masks will be made mandatory in shops and other settings such as hairdressers as well as on public transport in England from 4am on Tuesday.
Everyone entering the UK will be required to take a PCR test within two days of their arrival and must self-isolate until they receive a negative result. Any contact of a suspected case of Omicron must also isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.
Health minister Edward Argar on Monday pushed back on suggestions that additional coronavirus restrictions would be introduced ahead of Christmas. “It’s not something I’m anticipating,” he told Sky News.
He added it was “still early days in terms of understanding how it actually reacts in transmissibility and in terms of how dangerous it is”.
Children in year seven and above should wear face coverings in communal areas in English schools, the Department for Education has said.
Steve Baker, the Conservative deputy chair of the Covid Recovery Group, told the Telegraph the measures “will cause chaos including collateral harms like damage to children’s education”.
Dr Jenny Harries, UK Health Security Agency chief executive, said: “Our advanced sequencing capabilities enable us to find variants and take rapid action to limit onward spread.
“It is very likely that we will find more cases over the coming days as we are seeing in other countries globally and as we increase case detection through focused contact tracing.”
The government has not yet deployed its Covid-19 plan B, which includes guidance on working from home and Covid passports for mass events. Health secretary Sajid Javid told Sky News at the weekend the government was “nowhere near” that plan.
The new measures are being introduced as the variant continues to spread in Europe and scientists race to assess the new level of risk.
Prof Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical adviser, has warned that the variant may be able to evade vaccine protection, but insisted it was likely that vaccines would still help prevent severe illness and death.
Results of tests to gauge Omicron’s response to vaccines and immune systems are expected to take up to three weeks. The UK has convened a meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday.
Additional reporting by Sarah Provan