The autumn Covid booster programme will be brought forward after the “most concerning variant since omicron” was discovered in the UK.
The NHS will implement its “surge” booster plans and start vaccinations on Sept 11 after the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) =identified the BA.2.86 variant in Britain on Aug 18. The variant has been named “Pirola”.
Government officials have stressed that “speeding up” the autumn rollout is a “precautionary measure” in case the new variant is more transmissible or severe.
But the NHS has said “expert advice is clear this is the most concerning new variant since omicron”.
In a letter to NHS leaders, the health service called the move a response to an “urgent risk”. One doctor said they had admitted “several acute Covid patients needing oxygen” in one night, and that “they were looking like Covid patients again”.
Scientists say the variant’s 30-plus mutations make its transmissibility and the effectiveness of existing vaccines hard to predict, but it is likely that it will be more infectious.
The variant has been detected in a number of countries including Denmark, Israel and the US, and in individuals without travel history, meaning there is already sustained international transmission.
Covid booster vaccinations will now begin on Sept 11, having originally been planned to start in October. Flu jabs will be brought forward to the same date as the NHS tries to vaccinate people with both doses at the same time.
Dame Jenny Harries, the UKHSA chief executive, said: “This precautionary measure to bring forward the autumn programme will ensure these people have protection against any potential wave this winter.
“There is limited information available at present on BA.2.86, so the potential impact of this particular variant is difficult to estimate. 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 the Government and the public as we learn more.”
Prof David Strain, a clinical academic at the University of Exeter, said he was seeing increasing numbers of ill Covid patients again at the hospital where he works.
“The big concerns are that people hospitalised with Covid means that routine practice isn’t taking place. There’s no chance of the elective recovery happening unless we get on top of it,” he added.
Prof Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, said: “It’s not possible to say for certain, but when we had a variant with so many mutations once before, it spread very rapidly.
“The existing vaccines will probably still do a very good job of protecting against severe disease. Whether they do as good a job at protecting against infection we’ll have to wait and see, but with the number of mutations that we’ve got it’s probable that they won’t.”
Despite the concerns, there have been no changes to those who are eligible for the vaccinations. Around 12 million people aged 50 to 64 who were eligible for the autumn booster last year found out earlier this month that they would not be eligible this time.
Only people aged 65 and over, those considered at clinical risk, care home residents and health and social care staff are able to get the vaccines.
Prof Sir Stephen Powis, NHS England medical director, said: “Vaccinations are our best defence against flu and Covid-19 ahead of what could be a very challenging winter.
“With the potential for this new Covid variant to increase the risk of infection, we are following the latest expert guidance and bringing the Covid vaccination programme forward, with people able to get their flu vaccine at the same time to maximise protection.”
Maria Caulfield, the health minister, said: “It is absolutely vital the most vulnerable groups receive a vaccine to strengthen their immunity over winter to protect themselves and reduce pressure on the NHS.”