As published by The Daily Telegraph:
The booster rollout vaccinated fewer people over the weekend than it did before ministers promised to put it “on steroids”, figures showed on Monday.
The number of third jabs administered in England was lower last weekend than it was the previous one, when the Prime Minister called for the programme to be accelerated, in order to build defences against the omicron variant.
On Monday night, there were accusations that the programme was “stuck in first gear” and fears that further restrictions could be introduced over Christmas unless the programme is accelerated.
A blame game began in Whitehall over the speed of the rollout, with sources pointing the finger at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), run by Dr Jenny Harries, saying it was responsible for delays.
It came as Sajid Javid said it was “highly likely that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” with 336 cases confirmed across the UK.
The Health Secretary also raised fears that the new variant may spread more quickly than its predecessors, saying it could “knock us off our road to recovery”.
The slow booster rollout, combined with Mr Javid’s warnings, has led to concerns that the current restrictions, which saw face masks and travel curbs reintroduced last month, are increasingly unlikely to be eased when reviewed by the Government next week.
On Monday, Boris Johnson refused to rule out further restrictions, saying: “We’re still waiting to see exactly how dangerous it is, what sort of effect it has in terms of deaths and hospitalisations.”
On Monday night, government scientific advisers said they believe Omicron infections in Britain are doubling every three days.
Prof Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said data “suggests a doubling time of three days or less”, The Times reported.
In a Commons address on Monday, Mr Javid promised that the Government was “leaving nothing to chance” in a strategy to “buy ourselves time and strengthen our defences”, and highlighted the role of the booster rollout.
However, latest NHS statistics showed just 221,674 boosters were given on Sunday, down from 223,189 the week before. The figure of 412,755 given on Saturday compared with 419,657 on the same day the previous week.
While the weekly figure for England has risen slightly, from 2.16 million to 2.24 million, and the UK figure from 2.56 million to 2.64 million, they are some way off the government target, which pledged to deliver 3.5 million jabs a week.
Just 10 days ago, the Prime Minister asked scientific advisers if they would back an expansion in the rollout of jabs to all adults, shortening the gap between doses, to speed up the rollout.
While such advice emerged more than a week ago, recommending that all over-18s should be offered a booster, as little as three months after their second jab, the programme has yet to be altered.
On Monday night, a blame game emerged in Whitehall. NHS chiefs only issued guidance to the health service last Friday night, after days of wrangling with doctors’ unions about which services GPs would stop providing to take part in the rollout. This said the accelerated rollout, starting with the over-40s, may not begin until December 13.
Health sources said that the NHS delayed opening up its booking systems because it was waiting for legal instructions to be provided by the UKHSA.
However, others said that such paperwork should not cause delays, pointing out that the updates in protocols apply only to non-medical professionals, with doctors, nurses and pharmacists already allowed to follow the new guidance.
Concern over domestic spread of omicron
The Health Secretary said that 336 cases of the omicron variant had now been confirmed in the UK: 261 in England, 71 in Scotland and four in Wales.
Mr Javid said that some of the cases were not linked to international travel, meaning that people were likely to have caught the omicron variant while in the UK.
“It is highly likely that there is now community transmission across multiple regions of England,” he told the Commons.
The Health Secretary said that the Government was “leaving nothing to chance” in its efforts to build defences against the new threat, saying there was some evidence it may spread more quickly than other variants.
He told the Commons: “We are learning more about this new variant all the time. Recent analysis from the UK Health Security Agency suggests that the window between infection and infectiousness may be shorter for the omicron variant than for the delta variant. But we don’t yet have a complete picture of whether omicron causes more severe disease or, indeed, how it interacts with the vaccines.
“We can’t say for certain at this point whether omicron has the potential to knock us off our road to recovery.”
He added: “We are leaving nothing to chance. Our strategy is to buy ourselves time and to strengthen our defences while our world-leading scientists assess this new variant and what it means for our fight against Covid-19.”
The Government said, as of 9am on Monday, there had been a further 51,459 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK.
Mr Javid said that as far as he was aware none of the 336 people with a confirmed case of omicron in the UK had been admitted to hospital.
On Monday night, Wes Streeting, the shadow health secretary, said: “We want the Government to succeed, but the truth is they’ve been stuck in first gear on the booster rollout.”
He called on the Health Secretary to “provide an update on when he expects to hit that target of half a million booster jabs a day”.
Mr Javid insisted that the booster programme was “steaming ahead at a blistering pace”, restating government commitments to offer boosters to all eligible over-18s by the end of January.
David Davis, a former Cabinet minister, said: “It’s clearly necessary that the Government doesn’t just talk a big story, but also delivers a big story. That clearly isn’t happening at the moment. I would hope that Sajid has got the relevant people in front of him in his office demanding, one, why it has not happened and, two, that they put it right straightaway.”
Next week, the Government will review whether new Covid restrictions such as face mask mandates on public transport and self-isolation for new arrivals should continue.
Mr Javid said: “I can assure the House [of Commons] that we won’t keep these measures in place for a day longer than we have to.”
However, the lack of acceleration of the booster rollout has raised concerns that the restrictions are likely to remain in place.
One former minister said: “It is disappointing that despite the Government pulling out all the stops, we are not seeing that in the numbers this weekend.”
The rollout has been plagued in some areas by a lack of vaccinators and volunteer marshals ready to help administer jabs. In Peterborough, 1,000 people were turned away from a clinic in a single day because there were not enough volunteers on duty.
Shabbir Damani, a community pharmacist, said it had been “heartbreaking” to turn people away on Friday, but added there was no alternative.
He said: “When we don’t have enough team members we have to limit the size of the clinics. Our understanding is that we’re in this pandemic together, we can do it together, but we need the help and support.
“It’s heartbreaking, as we have a facility. We’re having to turn people away as we haven’t got the manpower.”
Clive Emmett, the chief executive of the Council for Voluntary Service Uttlesford in Essex, said that the charity was struggling to find volunteers for weekend sessions.
“We have a core of volunteers that have been volunteering on a Saturday on a regular basis for a long time now, but people are getting tired and have other things they want to do,” he told the BBC.
There has been little sign in many areas of the new clinics which Mr Johnson promised last week would soon be “popping up like Christmas trees”.
In Hull, where the vaccine uptake is lower than the national average, the city’s Labour MP has complained that there were no plans for walk-in boosters.
Dame Diana Johnson said: “With the need to minimise the spread of the omicron variant ahead of Christmas, I am concerned to have it confirmed by the NHS that there are currently no walk-in clinics for Covid booster jabs planned for Hull. This does not seem right. Do they need to think again?”
Local NHS bosses later confirmed that they were “not offering walk-ins currently in Hull for booster Covid vaccinations”, but added there remained “plenty of capacity within the system for booked appointments”.