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The UK’s Shambolic COVID Winter Vaccine Programme Alarms Experts

Officials are refusing to roll out vaccines to most people under the age of 65, despite warnings of a major outbreak this winter, Karam Bales reports

Mural on Eye Hospital wall to commemorate those who died in Hull during the COVID pandemic. Photo: Bridget Catterall / Alamy

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The UK’s Winter COVID vaccine programme appears to have had a shambolic start in comparison to comparable countries, with high risk individuals given older stock as part of an early roll out. And while the Government has already bought enough vaccines to vaccinate those aged 50-64, officials have decided not to extend eligibility to this group due to cost restraints. 

The Winter COVID programme was brought forward due to the emergence of the BA.2.86 variant which has a considerable number of different mutations to previous Omicron variants. On their website NHS England have said that the roll out “shouldn’t be delayed due to vaccine availability” and that “the accelerated start date as early as possible aims to project the highest risk, most vulnerable groups”. However, due to the decision to roll out the winter programme as fast as possible, old stock of the bivalent vaccine for the B4 and B5 variants has been used for the start of the programme.

The programme is set to switch to an updated vaccine designed for the new XBB variants now in circulation. However, this has led to people in high risk groups questioning why they have been encouraged to get vaccinated early with what could be a non-preferential vaccine.

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The shambolic nature of the vaccine programme has been further compounded by the Government revealing that it has bought enough of the updated vaccine to also vaccinate those aged 50 to 64, but the JCVI committee that decides on the timetable of vaccination programmes says there are currently no plans to extend eligibility.  The Department of Health has carried out a cost and benefit analysis and is considering extending eligibility as a contingency if serious pressure is on the NHS. However, many healthcare workers are wondering what benchmark the government has set for serious pressure given the NHS is already under considerable pressure right now.

A Delayed Response

Byline Times spoke to Professor Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, regarding the UK’s approach to COVID this winter. “I think it’s certainly a disappointment that the UK was slower than other countries to acquire and then distribute the new XBB vaccine”, he says.

However he reassures those already vaccinated with the older vaccine that while the newer vaccine is more likely to generate an antibody response that is better able to prevent infection by circulating virus strains, it is important to remember that the main ambition of the vaccine programme is, and always has been, to reduce the amount of severe disease we see. “There is no reason to believe that the bivalent Wuhan/BA.5 vaccine won’t provide very good protection in this regard” he insists.

Griffin noted that the number of people eligible for a SARS vaccine (and also influenza) has been reduced by new guidance, which is a stark contrast to countries like the US where everyone over the age of six months has been offered the XBB vaccines. “To me, we must embrace broader vaccination policy in this country as we are simply not in the scenario that allows us to treat SARS the same way as seasonal influenza.” 

After the decision last year to withdraw the offer of primary vaccination to anyone who hadn’t already been vaccinated, including children who previously weren’t old enough, the decision to limit access to the winter vaccination programme is yet another example of the UK being an international outlier.

With worrying reports of some hospitals telling workers not to test themselves for COVID or even expecting infected people to still come to work on wards with vulnerable patients, despite high levels of hospital acquired infection, its valid to ask if the UK’s approach to COVID is flawed. 

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The UK has experienced multiple waves of infection from this virus during 2022-2023, putting tens of thousands into hospital, contributing to the deaths of over 33,000 in 2022, 15,000 so far in 2023, and somewhere between 1-2 million people reporting to suffer from long COVID.

“Can this be mitigated by a focused vaccination programme?” Griffin asks, “Seemingly not, judging by these stats. We need research into better vaccines that limit transmission by targeting less variable parts of the virus”. He suggests that while at the same time the Government should invest in creating infection-resilient indoor environments that will lessen the airborne transmission of COVID, other diseases, and have other benefits in terms of pollution and cognition. “Simply carrying on as we once did will not resolve this situation”, he concludes.

Griffin’s comments to Byline Times come after a series of other experts warned tthat the Government appeared unprepared for a potential winter outbreak.

“What worries me most is if we get a repeat of the last winter NHS crisis this winter again, with COVID, flu and RSV all hitting around the same time,” Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London, told The Guardian, adding that “we are definitely flying near blind.”

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