Sajid Javid hints millions will be eligible for fourth (or FIFTH) Covid jabs

Health Secretary Sajid Javid has suggested the booster drive could be expanded again in the autumn

Britain’s Covid booster vaccine program is gearing up for another round of inoculations this autumn, the Health Secretary has revealed.

Fourth jabs will be dished out to all over-75s, care home residents and patients with weak immune systems from next week.

But Sajid Javid hinted last night that millions more may be eligible for top-up doses later this year, ahead of the country’s third Covid winter.

Grilled about the topic on ITV’s Peston program, he did not specify exactly who would be invited in any roll-out this autumn. However, he admitted there may be a ‘need to give a lot more people a boost’.

Experts have speculated another inoculation drive this year could be expanded to include over-50s, effectively covering the same groups who will be offered a free flu vaccine on the NHS.

When asked if the booster drive would be widened to the general population, Mr Javid said: ‘I think at some point they will.’

He claimed the Government would follow the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), a panel of influential scientists that have guided No10 through their historic inoculation campaigns.

Mr Javid insisted the group had been ‘clear’, adding: ‘Their most recent advice is they think towards the end of this year, maybe in the autumn, there will be a need to give a lot more people a boost, an offer of to boost. But I’ll wait for that advice. ‘

The JCVI recommended last month that the spring vaccination program should cover all over-75s, care home residents and immunocompromised over-12s, roughly 8million people.

It has now been six months since the rollout of third shots was launched, and England is yet to send out invites for the next part of the drive – despite Covid admissions and infections rising again. Scotland embarked on its top-up campaign more than a week ago.

A number of expressed concern that the current uptick in cases hospitalizations could be an early sign of waning immunity from boosters, with ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt last week calling for ‘more oomph’.

Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time

Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time

Omicron death rates are 14 TIMES lower after a booster vaccine

Covid death rates at the peak of England’s Omicron wave were up to 14 times lower among triple-jabbed people, official data shows.

Along with Omicron being intrinsically mild, the country’s booster campaign is thought to have played a key role in blunting a winter surge in severe illness and death – despite infections spiralling to record highs.

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report published yesterday showed elderly groups who are most vulnerable to Covid saw the biggest drops in death rates after a third jab.

There were 155 fatalities per 100,000 triple-jabbed people in their seventies in January, compared to 2,248 deaths among those still only double-vaccinated – a 14-fold difference. A similar effect was seen in people in their 60s, 80s and 90s.

No10’s vaccine advisory panel originally recommended booster doses for the elderly and vulnerable in September 2021, gradually opening the rollout to everyone over the age of 40 by November.

The advice came amid early signs that two-dose vaccine protection started to wane after six months – which was later exacerbated by the rise of the vaccine-resistant and extremely transmissible Omicron strain.

A health source suggested the roll-out of a second round of boosters could begin as early as next week, adding it was ‘right’ that ministers ‘crack on with it’.

They said texts and letters could be sent out to those who are eligible, and the NHS booking system would open from Monday.

Mr Javid said last night: ‘When it comes to vaccinations I think we rightly take the advice of our clinicians.

‘There’s a committee, it’s called the JCVI and we listen very carefully to what they’ve got to say.

‘They look at the data very, very carefully and their latest advice as you say is that there should be a second boost – or let’s call it a fourth dose – but to focus on those over 75, those in care homes, those who are immunosuppressed.

‘Now we will start that by the end of this month, that’s what we’ve said and we’re completely on track for that. But we listen to their advice all the time, should they come forward … ‘

When the plans were announced, officials said it would mean that some severely immunocompromised people who have already had four jabs would get a fifth – this group can include blood cancer patients and transplant recipients.

It also raises the prospect that hundreds of thousands may even be offered a sixth dose this autumn, if a third round of boosters are approved.

NHS England figures show 63 per cent of over-18s – or 31million out of 50million – have already had their third dose.

But uptake varies widely by age group, with more than nine in 10 over-70s having got their third jab. The rate is just a third among 18-29 year olds.

JCVI sources suggested last month that the booster program could be further expanded in the autumn, potentially to cover all over-50s.

There are some 5.5million over-75s in England who are being called forward for their fourth doses. Should the drive be expanded to over-50s, this would add roughly another 17million people.

Ministers have made no secret of plans for an annual Covid jabbing program, which could cost in the region of £ 600million.

SAGE scientists have also backed the strategy, saying this will likely be part of Covid’s gradual transition to becoming endemic like the flu.

But other scientists have claimed a never-ending cycle of boosters might not be needed, if the virus continues to become milder over time.

Britain’s Covid cases have been rising for the last two weeks, with the country now recording about 73,000 new infections a day on average.

Hospitalizations have also been heading up over this period, and are now at a similar level to early February when the Omicron wave was subsiding.

But half of hospital patients with Covid are thought to be ‘incidental’ cases – those who test positive after being admitted for another reason, or beat the illness only to fall ill with something else.

It may mean the recent rise in hospital admissions is more likely to reflect infection rates in the community, rather than severe illness.

The uptick coincides with surging cases of a more transmissible version of Omicron scientifically named BA.2, which estimates suggest now makes up 80 per cent of cases.

Ministers in England, however, say the increases were to be ‘expected’ following the country’s ‘Freedom Day’ on February 24 – when the final Covid measures were dumped. Mr Javid has insisted there was ‘nothing in the data at this point in time that gives us any cause for concern’.

But in Scotland Nicola Sturgeon has opted to keep compulsory face masks in place until April, with officials saying they do not expect the BA.2 outbreak to peak for the next few weeks.

Only a quarter of the rise in the newly-occupied NHS Covid beds in the first week of March was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests.  Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England

Only a quarter of the rise in the newly-occupied NHS Covid beds in the first week of March was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests. Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England

The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country.  London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection

The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country. London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection

Another 91,000 Britons were diagnosed with the virus over the past 24 hours, Government dashboard data shows, up by a third in a week and the 14th day in a row cases have risen week-on-week

Another 91,000 Britons were diagnosed with the virus over the past 24 hours, Government dashboard data shows, up by a third in a week and the 14th day in a row cases have risen week-on-week

Latest hospital data shows there were 1,541 Covid admissions on March 12, marking a 29 per cent rise on the previous week and 13th time in a row they had risen

Latest hospital data shows there were 1,541 Covid admissions on March 12, marking a 29 per cent rise on the previous week and 13th time in a row they had risen

There were also another 153 virus deaths today, up a quarter in the previous week.  Fatalities have been creeping up since the start of the month with around 150 on average each day now compared to 103 on March 1

There were also another 153 virus deaths today, up a quarter in the previous week. Fatalities have been creeping up since the start of the month with around 150 on average each day now compared to 103 on March 1

Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, of the University of Edinburgh, said keeping the requirement for face coverings is in line with dealing with the surge and is a ‘relatively easily-achieved measure’.

Masks on public transport, restaurants and other indoor settings were slated to be downgraded from a legal requirement to advice on March 21.

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that with the ‘current spike’ in cases, ministers had agreed it was’ prudent ‘for this measure to remain in place and the legal requirement will be reviewed again in two weeks’ time.

An Office for National Statistics (ONS) report published yesterday showed elderly groups who are most vulnerable to Covid saw the biggest drops in death rates after a third jab.

There were 155 fatalities per 100,000 triple-jabbed people in their seventies in January, compared to 2,248 deaths among those still only double-vaccinated – a 14-fold difference. A similar effect was seen in people in their 60s, 80s and 90s.

No10’s vaccine advisory panel originally recommended booster doses for the elderly and vulnerable in September 2021, gradually opening the rollout to everyone over the age of 40 by November.

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