Ex-health secretary Jeremy Hunt says no need to wait for JCVI recommendation
The prime minister appeared to confirm that a rollout of third jabs will begin this month – but the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is yet to give its formal recommendation.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that just a few days could make “a big difference” to infection levels – urging ministers to plunge ahead with the programme rather than wait for the JCVI decision.
“I understand why scientists are taking their time, but I think in a pandemic politicians can also read the rooms and see the direction of travel,” said the Tory MP, chair of the health select committee. “We should just get on, not wait for that advice – get on with a booster programme.”
The JCVI’s deputy chairman Prof Anthony Harnden said earlier this week that it is “highly likely” there will be a booster programme, but a final decision has not been made.
He said his panel of experts is awaiting the results of a Cov-Boost study looking at different vaccines to see what immune responses they give and whether jabs can be mixed and matched in a booster programme.
Prof Harnden said there had been was “very complicated modelling and data analysis”, adding experts do not want to jab people too soon and then be unable to do so again if a new variant emerges.
Experts criticised Mr Hunt’s call for a political decision on a booster programme, warning the prime minister to wait for the JCVI’s recommendation.
Dr Doug Brown, head of the British Society for Immunology, said: “As with all decisions around vaccine use, it’s critical that the evidence around Covid vaccines, including whether additional doses are needed or not, is robustly scrutinised by the experienced experts from the JCVI.”
Prof Sir Andrew Pollard, who chairs JCVI but does not sit on the Covid vaccine committee, said scientists’ decisions should not be “bound by short term political expediency”.
He added: “Advice can be modified at any time when new scientific advice emerges – such a change is not bound by political ideology or opinion, but an appropriate response to the science.”
Prof Saul Faust, chief investigator of the Cov-Boost study, said he found it “hard to understand” the pressure coming from politicians.
“The UK is the only country in the world who commissioned urgent research to inform booster decisions, and the trial timelines have always been set to report next week for the decision making.”
Ministers have also heaped pressure on government scientists for a decision on jabbing 12 to 15-year-old children, as pupils return to secondary schools in England.
The JCVI is understood to have held a debate on the issue on Thursday. Reports suggest the JCVI had “pretty good news” from data in the US showing the vaccines pose an even smaller risk to children than previously thought.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said he hoped the JCVI would approve an expansion in the rollout to under 16s “very soon” – insisting there was capacity to carry out a booster programme and jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds at the same time.
A group of leading international scientists said allowing mass infection of children is “reckless” and all over-12s should be offered the vaccine as soon as possible.
In an open letter published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), they warned: “England’s policies mean that we will soon have a large susceptible population with high prevalence of infection mixing in crowded environments with hardly any mitigations.”