The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended a two-stage Covid vaccine programme starting in September, to take place alongside flu vaccinations.
The JCVI laid out the order of priority for groups of people receiving their third vaccine dose later this year in interim advice published today, with GPs among the top priority groups.
New vaccines designed to tackle specific variants of the virus will not be ready in time for any autumn booster programme, but may be considered in the future, added the JCVI.
The Government has accepted the JCVI’s advice to prioritise GPs for a booster Covid jab alongside at-risk groups such as the immunosuppressed.
However the JCVI has warned it will continue to review the data over the next few months, including on the duration of immunity from current vaccines, and stressed that its final advice on booster vaccination ‘may change substantially’.
Under the interim advice, the first stage of the programme will prioritise those ‘most at risk from serious disease’ – defined as care home residents, the over-70s, frontline health and social care workers, the clinically extremely vulnerable and the immunosuppressed – Public Health England (PHE) announced.
The JCVI said these groups ‘should be offered a third dose Covid-19 booster vaccine and the annual influenza vaccine as soon as possible from September 2021’.
Stage two includes the over-50s, all those aged 16-49 in a flu or Covid ‘at-risk group’ and the adult household contacts of the immunosuppressed, it added.
These groups ‘should be offered a third dose Covid-19 booster vaccine as soon as practicable after stage one, with equal emphasis on deployment of the influenza vaccine where eligible’, it said.
The JCVI added: ‘As most younger adults will only receive their second Covid-19 vaccine dose in late summer, the benefits of booster vaccination in this group will be considered at a later time when more information is available.
‘The initial objective for winter 2021/22 is for persons in booster stages one and two to receive their influenza and Covid-19 vaccines in good time.’
This is because it is the JCVI’s view that ‘the primary objective of a 2021 Covid-19 booster programme is to reduce the occurrence of serious Covid-19 disease’, it said.
It comes as ‘early evidence’ on the concomitant administration of the Covid and flu vaccines used in the UK ‘supports the delivery of both vaccines at the same time where appropriate’, the JCVI added.
It said: ‘The priority for deployment teams should be the delivery of influenza and Covid-19 booster vaccines to individuals identified in stage one at the earliest possible time, progressing to Covid-19 booster revaccination of individuals identified in stage two without causing undue delay and without displacement of the timely delivery of annual influenza vaccinations.
‘Within each of the stages, where practicable those with the longest interval since the second dose of their primary course of vaccination should be called first.’
JCVI Covid chair Professor Wei Shen Lim said: ’The JCVI’s interim advice is that, should a booster programme be required, a third Covid-19 vaccine dose should be offered to the most vulnerable first, starting from September 2021 to maximise individual protection and safeguard the NHS ahead of winter.
‘Almost all these people would also be eligible for the annual flu vaccine and are strongly advised to have the flu vaccine.’
The JCVI added that vaccines designed specifically to target variants of concern ‘will not be available in time’ for the autumn booster programme but it will consider the use of variant vaccines ‘in due course’.
However, other vaccines ordered by the UK Government but not yet authorised for use by the regulator ‘may become available for use in a booster programme’ and will be reviewed by the JCVI following regulatory approval, it said.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said the Government is ‘working closely with the NHS to ensure that if a booster programme happens it can be deployed rapidly from September’.
Further details of both the Covid booster programme and the flu vaccination programme ‘will be set out in due course’, it added.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: ‘We welcome this interim advice, which will help us ensure we are ready in our preparations for autumn. We look forward to receiving the committee’s final advice in due course.’
Deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam added that he agrees with the ‘broad direction of travel’ set out by the JCVI and that the ministers ‘have accepted’ its advice.
NHS England indicated earlier this month that the cohorts prioritised for the planned Covid booster jab programme may be based on the list of patients advised to shield.
Former health secretary Matt Hancock previously said he was ‘absolutely clear’ that a Covid vaccination booster programme will run this autumn although deputy CMO Dr Jonathan Van-Tam has said it could be delayed if needed.
Last week, NHS England’s outgoing chief executive Simon Stevens said it is ‘very likely’ the flu and Covid jabs will be co-administered, but stressed details of the programme will not be confirmed until after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation issues its advice.
Clinical trials are underway to test seven different existing vaccines for a third booster Covid shot and are due to report by September.