The NHS is now rolling out booster doses of Covid-19 vaccines. Why do we need these boosters and who can receive them?
The number of Covid-19 cases in the UK is around 40,000 per day. This is amongst the highest rate of infection of any country in the world and higher than all our Western European neighbours. Vaccines are protecting us and without them, we would be seeing many more people who are seriously ill. However, some of these infections will still lead to a serious illness and death, even in people who have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine as no vaccine is 100% effective.
We know that the protection provided by Covid-19 vaccines can weaken over time – particularly in the elderly or in those people with weak immune systems. Research from other countries shows that a booster (third) dose of a vaccine improves your immunity to Covid-19 and reduces your risk of a serious illness that may lead to hospitalisation or death. Some people with medical conditions or who are taking drugs that weaken their immune system will need four doses of vaccine to give them maximum protection.
The rollout of the NHS booster programme has been slower than we would have liked. We want as many people as possible to receive boosters before the onset of winter when pressures on the NHS increase. Because most Covid-19 restrictions in England ended in July, many people may think the pandemic is largely over and so do not think they need another vaccination. Some people may also lack confidence in vaccines or be concerned about side effects. Others may be struggling to get an appointment at a vaccine clinic that is convenient for them to attend.
To help people get their booster vaccines, the NHS needs to make it as easy as possible for people to book and attend their appointments. The NHS can do this by ensuring there are local sites offering boosters so that people don’t have to travel far to get one. The sites also need to have convenient opening hours (such as being open in the evenings and at weekends) that allow people who are working to attend easily.
It’s also important for the NHS to explain clearly why we need boosters, and remind people about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. We now have data from many millions of people across the world to show how well Covid-19 vaccines work and how safe they are. The UK has led the world on much of this research thanks to the data collected by our NHS.
The people being targeted for boosters are those at highest risk of serious illness and death from a Covid-19 infection. This includes people aged 50 and over, and people under 50 with medical conditions that put them at higher risk. NHS staff, people who live and work in care homes, and people who are the main carer of someone at high-risk are also being invited for boosters.
If people don’t attend for their boosters, they will increase their risk of catching Covid-19 and having a more serious illness. This will lead to more cases of Covid-19 and increased pressures on the NHS during the winter. The number of deaths from Covid-19 will also increase.
This then may require the government to bring back some Covid-19 restrictions; and if the situation gets very bad, it may require a further lockdown. This is something we want to avoid because of all the problems that lockdowns cause. We all want a more normal way of life and don’t wish to see a repeat of last year when Christmas gatherings were not possible because of the Covid-19 rules that were in place at the time.
A high take-up of boosters will also reduce the chances of new virus mutations from developing. This year, we have seen the rapid spread of the delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the world, including in the UK. Recently, a new version of the delta variant, the AY.4.2 subvariant, has been detected in the UK. This variant is causing concern because it may be more infectious than the original delta variant.
The good news is that our vaccines continue to work well against new virus variants when people are fully vaccinated. If, however, people are not fully protected by vaccination, new variants like AY.4.2 may spread and eventually lead to other variants arising against which current vaccines are less effective.
Covid-19 vaccines are safe and very effective. By getting a booster, you are protecting yourself and the other people you live and work with. You are also reducing the need for the government to introduce new Covid-19 restrictions this winter. So please go out and get your booster vaccine as soon as you can.
A version of this article was first published in The Sun.
On 15 November 2021, the JCVI announced that people aged 40-49 would also be eligible for booster doses of a Covid-19 vaccine.