Expert urges offering Covid booster jabs to younger groups in UK

Rolling out Covid booster jabs to younger people could help drive down transmission of the virus to “low levels”, according to the scientist whose modelling was instrumental to the UK going into its first lockdown.

More than 11.8 million people in the UK have received a third jab, which is given to counteract the gradual waning of protection provided by the first two shots.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Prof Neil Ferguson said modelling by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine suggests that rolling out booster shots to younger cohorts, once the over-50s and the clinically very vulnerable have been immunised, could help “drive down transmission to low levels” in the UK.

Ferguson said he was “quite optimistic” about the winter months ahead, stating that he thinks it is “unlikely we will get anything close to what we had last year, that catastrophic winter wave”.

The epidemiologist said he expected the enhanced protection offered by booster doses “to continue for several months and get us through the winter at the very least – maybe even longer”.

Although he warned against complacency, Ferguson said he hoped the UK could avoid returning to social distancing measures, such as were implemented last year. “We can’t be complacent, but at the moment I don’t think we’ll be in a situation the Netherlands is coming into where they really do need to get on top of rising case numbers using social distancing.”

The scientist’s comments came after Boris Johnson warned on Friday of “storm clouds” forming over parts of Europe, with Germany recording its highest ever case numbers and Austria, Slovakia and Croatia also recently seeing a surge in Covid cases. The prime minister called on elderly and vulnerable people to get their booster jabs in order to prevent a rise in Covid cases in the UK, saying: “We’ve been here before. We remember what happens when the wave starts rolling in.”

While the UK had one of the highest case rates in Europe in October, daily case data and the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics on infection levels suggest there has been a fall in recent weeks.

An estimated one in 60 people in the community in England had Covid in the week ending 6 November, compared with one in 50 people in late October. There has also been a drop in Wales, but the rate of people testing positive in Scotland has remained level and the trend is unclear in Northern Ireland.

After falling cases and hospital admissions in the past two or three weeks, Ferguson said there had been a “hint of an uptick in the last few days”. However, he said the UK was in “quite a different situation” to countries such as Germany, as UK cases have been “very high … for the last four months”.

While the high rates “obviously had some downsides”, Ferguson said, “it has also paradoxically had an upside of boosting the immunity of the population compared with [European countries] … which have had much lower case numbers and are only now seeing an uptick.”

In a study showing how protection against Covid begins to wane several months after full vaccination, researchers at Imperial College London found that infection rates rose from 0.35% in the three months after the second dose to 0.55% three to six months after the second shot.

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