We're losing our vital head start, and here's what is to blame

We’re losing our vital head start, and here’s what is to blame: As complacency, anti-vaxxers and poor role models slow Covid jab rollout, leading vaccinologist BRENDAN WREN’s withering diagnosis

Just like our immunity to Covid, the UK’s ‘world-beating’ vaccine programme is starting to wane. Now is the time to deliver a robust reminder to the nation.

Yes, life appears to have resumed as normal for large swathes of the country, but we are still in the throes of a global pandemic and we cannot afford to take our foot off the brake.

By now, a booster rollout should be well under way, topping up the antibodies of the most vulnerable people in our society who were the first to receive the jab.

Instead, it appears to have stalled and not because of a shortage of jabs.

As Health Secretary Sajid Javid said last night: ‘We’ve got the jabs, we just need the arms to put them in.’

Pictured: Arsenal footballer Granit Xhaka who turned down the opportunity to have a coronavirus vaccine

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, suggested complacency among those double-jabbed, but there are complaints about lack of access, too. 

Many GP surgeries are no longer offering vaccination, and some of the mass vaccination centres have closed.

In truth the problem is broader than that.

A dangerous combination of factors has come into play: a general lack of urgency over booster jabs, a lack of information about why the booster is important, and a slide away from our first line of defence – basic hygiene precautions – even as a possibly more infectious strain of the virus emerges.

Alarmingly, this week it was revealed that just one third of care home residents have been offered a booster, even though it is well over six months since most had their second jabs. This is deeply worrying to me as a vaccine specialist.

We saw the appalling consequences of delay and muddled thinking during the first lockdown, when hospital patients were transferred to care homes without being tested first.

As a result, Covid ran riot causing many thousands of deaths. To allow something similar because of an ineffective booster rollout would be criminal neglect on the part of the Government.

Add to this a wave of anti-vaxx propaganda, and apparent lethargy on the part of our political and NHS leaders over boosters, and we have the making of another grave crisis.

Pictured: Anti-vaxxers face riot police during demonstrations through central London

Just like our immunity to Covid, the UK’s ‘world-beating’ vaccine programme is starting to wane. Now is the time to deliver a robust reminder to the nation. Pictured: An empty vaccination centre in north London

Some voices within the NHS are already calling for more stringent restrictions – the so-called ‘Plan B’ of masks in public and a return to working from home.

I don’t want to sound a klaxon of panic. The situation is not yet desperate. But we need to get our act together, just as we did so brilliantly when a vaccine first became available. 

No one can say we did not know this was coming. 

Three months ago, Israeli scientists reported a worrying trend. This small but technologically very advanced nation was the very first to implement a mass programme of inoculation via two vaccine doses, and as such it is the world’s canary.

For a short while it had indeed looked as if Israel had the virus beaten and that the vaccines were so effective that more than 90 per cent of double-jabbed patients would be entirely resistant to infection. The rest would suffer only a mild illness, too feeble to be transmissible.

But then Covid infection rates among the vaccinated population started rising. Some people, especially the elderly and those with serious underlying health conditions, needed hospital treatment and some of them died.

There is no doubt at all that it’s far safer to be double vaccinated (as the vast majority of Britons are) but Israel’s experience appears to show that the protection wears off, or at least becomes patchy. 

Scientists realised that a third jab was vitally important to maintain the body’s defences and recommended a booster six months after the second jab. 

That time period is an arbitrary one – it doesn’t mean that the ‘double jab’ suddenly ceases to work beyond that point in time.

Nor is there any reason why we shouldn’t have boosters after four or five months. Do it sooner rather than later, that’s my advice. 

Sajid Javid today insisted ministers would not reintroduce face masks and WFH guidance ‘at this point’ as he addressed the nation 

Instead, I am sorry to see a distinct absence of purpose on the part of the NHS. 

Some people have had their booster, but many who are eligible have not. I got my second jab in March – seven months ago – but have yet to be invited for a booster. I know, anecdotally, that I’m not the only one.

So what has happened to the Blitz spirit that motivated the first vaccine rollout – the thousands of volunteers who mobilised to run vaccine centres, the long queues outside, and the politicians and celebrities who went public getting their jab? Why isn’t the same happening for the booster programme? We need to revive that spirit but instead, we’re going backwards.

Take the vaccine programme for teenagers which appears to have stalled due to a combination of parental concerns over the jab; the fact that so many children are at home self-isolating when the jabs are being administered in school; and anti-vaxxer activity on social media.

I am particularly dismayed at the number of Premier League footballers who have refused to get jabbed. Why don’t their clubs insist on vaccination – if not to safeguard their £100million assets, then to protect vulnerable young fans influenced by their ill-informed anti-vaccine messages.

But most of all, I am aghast at how quickly we’ve forgotten all the simple practices that helped hold back the virus. Hand hygiene is crucial to stop the spread of all kinds of diseases.

The mere fact that cases of food poisoning plummeted when, during lockdown, we began using soap and water properly ought to be all the encouragement we need.

Mask hygiene is also slipping. Too many people eschew masks on public transport. 

I’m no mask fundamentalist, and I understand why so many find them oppressive. But if you are going to wear one, don’t wear it under your chin.

The Government needs to reiterate the clear, unambiguous messages that we know work. 

‘Hands, Face, Space’ was, and is, a good slogan (far preferable to ‘Stay at home!’) And if we want to avoid another winter lockdown – surely the worst possible outcome – we have to act now.

I was encouraged by some of what Mr Javid said at his press conference yesterday which directly addressed the concerns I’ve raised.

He said that the national booking service must be opened up to teenagers so they can get the vaccine outside school. He also promised that the Government would ‘redouble’ its efforts to vaccinate the five million over-16s who have yet to be jabbed.

And he stressed the importance of the booster jab as the effect of the vaccine reduces ‘materially’ over time – particularly among the elderly. He conceded the Government had to do more to help people access boosters.

He also pointed to the new AY4.2 variant of the Delta strain as a reason that we cannot lower our guard. 

Importantly, however, the Health Secretary was not panicked into triggering Plan B. It is Plan A, the vaccine booster programme, that is our surest route out of danger.

But the Government needs to do more to reassure and encourage the unvaccinated and those eligible for boosters.

They must make it clear that having a booster jab doesn’t mean depriving someone else of it, in the UK or elsewhere in the world (there is manufacturing capacity for the world’s population).

They must take on the anti-vaxxers, who are becoming more voluble by the day, much more aggressively. The only way to silence them is with clear, hard facts.

Everyone should understand that Britain needs its unvaccinated citizens to get the jab, and the vaccinated to get the booster. A repeat of last winter is unthinkable.

Brendan Wren is Professor of Vaccinology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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