Booster jabs will see Covid "fade into the background", an expert has said as the former vaccines minister hoped that the UK will become the first major economy to shift from pandemic to endemic.
Professor James Naismith of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and a biologist at Oxford University believes Britain is over the worst of Covid in terms of case numbers and as infections continue to fall, so too will hospitalisations and deaths, which currently stand at more than 1,000 a day and 1,000 a week respectively.
The expert told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme that the third dose and vaccinating younger people is the key to seeing coronavirus diminished as a serious disease.
He told the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme: "It depends how long vaccine immunity lasts… how many younger people get vaccinated, but I suspect it will fade back into the background as a serious disease.
"My concern might be if the vaccine rollout is very slow in poorer countries… it may remain with them for much longer."
Prof Naismith said that resistance begins to wane at around six months, and that the elderly are most are most vulnerable, but boosters "restore immunity to well above 95 percent effectiveness for serious disease".
His comments come as ex-vaccine tsar and now Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told The Sun that the Government plans to roll out yearly boosters.
He said: "Ultimately our plan, we will, I hope be the first major economy to transition from pandemic to endemic and have an annual vaccination programme."
On Sunday Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the push to get people to have the top-up was a "national mission". You can see the progress below.
England booster jabs progress
Meanwhile, the chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency said the number of deaths among the vaccinated population is on the rise as protection weakens.
Mr Javid said younger relatives should urge eligible parents and grandparents to take up the offer of a booster and the flu vaccine, saying if "we all come together and play our part" then the country can "avoid a return to restrictions and enjoy Christmas".
He said: "We know immunity begins to wane after six months, especially for the elderly and the vulnerable, and booster vaccines will top up their protection to keep people safe over the winter.
"I strongly urge everybody who is eligible for a Covid-19 booster or flu vaccine to take up the offer as soon as you can.
"And if you haven’t yet had your first and second vaccines, it is not too late, the NHS will always be there to welcome you with open arms."
Nervtag member: Need for booster has become ‘very clear’
Professor Peter Openshaw, chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), said the need for boosters had become "very clear".
The professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London told Times Radio: "We don’t know how long a vaccine is going to last until we’ve had sufficient time to watch the immunity drifting downwards and I think that’s something which has become very clear recently is that these vaccines don’t appear to be forever – they do provide a lot of protection, but they have to be boosted."
Asked if it is just the elderly at risk of not getting their booster, he added: "Well if we look at the people who are sadly still dying of Covid, it’s predominantly in those over 50.
"And it’s that group that really does need to have the boosters in order to stop them from dying – particularly those over 60 and especially in those over 70."
He also urged people who are still yet to take up any offer of the vaccine to get jabbed "as soon as possible".
But Prof Openshaw also urged caution, insisting the NHS was in a "serious situation" and that Covid "is not over".
"There’s an awful lot of Covid still around," he said.
"At the moment we’re seeing admission rates running at something like 1,000 people per day and there’s currently over 1,000 people on mechanical ventilators in our hospitals.
"And I just don’t think people realise the serious situation that there is out there in the National Health Service hospitals, with so many people on ventilators and over 9,000 people actually in the hospital currently with Covid-19.
"Covid isn’t done. It’s not over."
This was echoed by Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) advising ministers, who said "we are not out of the woods yet" but the UK was not facing a winter lockdown.
Asked about the prospect of a winter lockdown, he told Sky News: "I think we’re a long way away from thinking in those terms.
"I think that clearly there is a situation that if the NHS is under severe pressure, if the number of deaths sadly starts to increase, then of course, obviously, there may be discussions around whether more restrictions need to come in.
"I would hope that, with a very successful vaccination campaign, the idea of a winter lockdown is a long way away.
"But it is certainly true that if we don’t get good immunity across the population, there may need to be perhaps further measures taken.
"So it’s really important that we encourage people to come forward when eligible to take those booster jabs."
Annual booster jabs may be needed
Dr Mike Tildesley told Sky News people may need booster jabs every year.
He said: "I think it’s possible. I remember having these sorts of discussions about nine months ago when the vaccinations were starting to roll out, that it’s possible that this virus could become endemic, so circulate in the population every year in the way that flu does.
"It’s possible that every year… we’re having to go out and get our Covid jabs in the same way a lot of people are currently getting their flu jabs."
Dr Tildesley said the booster programme was "going in the right direction but there clearly is work to do for the people over 50, for vulnerable adults."
He added: "Immunity will be starting to wane from the second jab so it is really important that that acceleration continues and hopefully we get as many people protected as possible as we move into the colder months."
The third jab could also become a requirement to avoid travel restrictions in a move which may further drive take-up.
Official guidance was updated earlier this month to say the Government "is reviewing the implications and requirements of boosters for international travel certification" and "looking at whether and how booster vaccinations could be included in the NHS Covid Pass for travel".
But the Mail on Sunday reported that officials are divided over how soon to implement the measures and are discussing a grace period to allow people to continue to travel without quarantine if they have sought a booster six months after their second jab but have not yet been offered an appointment.
Millions had their second dose six months ago but haven’t had booster
The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, Dr Susan Hopkins, said elderly and vulnerable people who are double vaccinated have started dying due to the Covid-19 vaccine’s efficacy waning.
She said: "We’re still seeing deaths in mainly the unvaccinated population, but increasingly, because of immune waning effects, there are deaths in the vaccinated group as well.
"The people who are dying are the same people who have died all the way through.
"It is particularly the older age groups, so the over-70s in particular, but also those who are clinically vulnerable, extremely vulnerable, and have underlying medical conditions."
People over 50 and those most at risk from Covid-19 are currently eligible for a booster six months after their second jab.
NHS figures from Sunday show that more than seven in 10 people aged 80 and over have had a booster while almost three in five people aged 50 and over have had one.
Ten million people had received the booster by Sunday, but about 30% of over-80s and 40% of over-50s in England are yet to receive a booster, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
Three million more people in England are being invited to have their coronavirus booster jabs next week, after Saturday saw a record day, with more than 371,000 people receiving one.