Every little helps: Why high Covid booster vaccine uptake is key to saving Christmas

“This Christmas, nothing’s stopping us,” Tesco has declared in a new festive advert so political, it could have been commissioned by the Downing Street nudge unit.

The commercial, which shows Father Christmas clutching his Covid vaccine passport at UK immigration, was broadcast just 48 hours before the Government extended the booster programme to 40-somethings.

Announcing the plan on Monday, Boris Johnson argued that high booster uptake is the key to saving the holiday season, placing Christmas freedoms firmly in the hands – or, more accurately, the arms – of the public. Every little helps, after all.

The Government has so far resisted calls to implement “Plan B” coronavirus measures, relying instead on increased immunity from third jabs to keep cases at manageable levels and avoid another winter wave.

At a press conference on Monday afternoon, the Prime Minister said: “It’s going well, numbers are climbing."

However, he warned: “If we want to avoid restrictions on our daily lives, we must all get vaccinated as soon as we are eligible.”

Thankfully, there are encouraging signs that the booster programme is working – at least among the over-50s.

Real-world figures released by the UK Health Security Agency on Monday showed that boosters give 93.1 per cent protection against symptomatic infection for Britons who had the AstraZeneca vaccine. Before the booster, protection had slipped to 47 per cent six months after a second jab. 

Vaccine effectiveness estimates before and after booster dose

It is a similar story among Pfizer recipients, with protection rising from 69 per cent to 94 per cent.

Similarly, data from Israel suggested that boosted over-60s are 10 times less likely to suffer a Covid infection, compared to those with just two doses. There was also an 18.7-fold reduction against hospitalisations and a 14.7-fold reduction against mortality.

Data from the Office for National Statistics released last week showed that antibody levels are also rising again in the over-50s, after slowly declining since the summer.

Both antibodies and vaccination rates are highest in older generations

However, there is one flaw in the Government’s under-50s booster extension plan to save Christmas. The majority will not be eligible for a third jab until after the holidays.

The first under-50s received their jabs in mid-April, about four months after the programme started for the oldest and most vulnerable.

At the time, ministers recommended an interval of 12 weeks between jabs, which was not changed to eight weeks until July. It means that most will not be eligible until mid-January.

Percentage of people fully jabbed

It is also unknown whether younger people will see a similar drop in immunity as older people. Research suggested that waning antibodies are less of a problem in younger groups, who mount a stronger initial response.

Recent data from the UK Health Security Agency showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine’s effectiveness against symptomatic infection nearly halves to 36 per cent, five months after a second jab for the over-65s.

In contrast, in 40-year-olds to 64-year-olds, effectiveness remains at 57 per cent at five months, having dropped by just nine per cent.

Offering a booster to the 40-somethings is also unlikely to have a large impact on deaths and admissions.

2021 winter Covid deaths on shallower trajectory than 2020

According to latest figures from  the UK Health Security Agency, the number of double-jabbed 40-year-old to 49-year-olds dying after testing positive for Covid in the last three weeks was just 32 – just 1.5 per cent of the total. They also account for just five per cent of emergency admissions.

So the decision to extend the programme may be more political than practical, allowing the Government to be seen to still be making an effort to control the virus, even as it draws up plans to dial down its response.

Documents leaked last weekend revealed that mandarins are working on Operation Rampdown, which will take Covid off an emergency footing and back into the realms of everyday healthcare.

Even Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, signalled that we are nearing the end of the crisis as he urged people to come forward to be boosted, so Britain can “get on and finish the job”.

Covid deaths expected to peak far below previous rates

Modelling also suggested that Britain has little to fear from a new winter wave. New figures from University College London suggested that deaths will remain at an average of 150 a day for the next week, before steadily declining towards 25 daily deaths by the New Year.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine also correctly forecast that cases would start to fall in November, with Christmas seeing low rates of infection.

On Monday, the Prime Minister reaffirmed his belief that there is “nothing in the current data” to trigger Plan B.

Prof Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, confirmed that cases, deaths and admissions are no longer rising and have been “broadly flat” for many weeks.

“The number of people in hospital is mercifully a lot lower than in the peak,” he said at Monday’s press conference. “Covid numbers are not going up as you are seeing in continental Europe and if they were you would have to look again.”

However, he warned that the NHS is under “very significant pressure” from winter effects and the catch-up from Covid.

Officials are clearly concerned that the health service could face a worse than normal flu season, while struggling to clear the backlog of treatment put off during the height of the pandmeic.

If that is the case, preventing even small numbers of Covid patients will be crucial to avoid overwhelming the NHS this Christmas.

So, ‘tis the season to be boosted. It might just keep you out of hospital and off Boris’s naughty list.

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