Nearly half of elderly Londoners have still not received a Covid-19 Spring booster vaccine, figures revealed on Thursday, as health authorities confirmed that booster jabs would be brought forward this autumn due to the emergence of a new variant.
Just 52.1 per cent of people aged 75 and over in the capital had received their Spring booster jab as of August 23, by far the lowest proportion of any region in England.
The figures lay bare the task facing the NHS to vaccinate vulnerable residents amid the spread of BA.2.86, which health experts have said represents the most concerning variant since the emergence of Omicron.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Wednesday announced that booster vaccinations in England would start on September 11 to provide greater protection against the variant. It had been due to start in October.
The latest data shows that infections are rising across London, albeit from a low base. Hillingdon has the highest infection rate of any borough, with 16.2 cases per 100,000 people in the week up to August 19. This was followed by Harrow (13.9) and then Westminster (13).
Vaccination rates vary greatly according to borough, the latest Government data shows. In Newham, nearly two-thirds (63.8 per cent) of residents aged 75 and over have not received a Spring booster, compared with 30.5 per cent in Richmond upon Thames.
GP surgeries began offering Spring booster programme in April and the programme lasted until June. The low rate of vaccination in London means that many elderly residents have limited protection against the virus ahead of a possible spike in infections brought on by BA.2.86.
The autumn booster will be offered to care home residents, people aged 65 and over, frontline health workers, carers and high-risk individuals. Residents of older adult care homes and people who are immunosuppressed will receive their jabs first.
Dame Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: “As we continue to live with Covid-19, we expect to see new variants emerge.
“Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population. However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19.”
Dame Jenny added that the potential impact of BA.2.86 was “difficult to estimate” due to “limited information” being available.
“As with all emergent and circulating Covid-19 variants – both in the UK and internationally – we will continue to monitor BA.2.86 and to advise government and the public as we learn more,” she said.
Health experts welcomed the announcement, saying it would be necessary to stem pressure on the NHS ahead of a difficult winter.
Dr Simon Clarke, Associate Professor in Cellular Microbiology at the University of Reading, said the expedition of the programme was important as there are “unanswered questions surrounding how BA.2.86 will behave” during the winter period.
“This will only be our fourth winter with Covid-19, so science and medicine still have a lot to learn about how the weather influences spread of this particular virus.
“Operationally it just makes sense to get the ball rolling and to not do it at the same time as the flu jab would be folly, people might not bother going for the second jab or mistakenly assume that one jab protects against two very different viruses.”