Autumn Covid vaccine programme brought forward after new variant detected in UK

The flu and Covid-19 vaccine programme is to start earlier than planned this year, officials have said.

It comes after a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 was detected in the UK on August 18.

NHS officials said the variant, known as BA.2.86, represents the most concerning new variant since Omicron first emerged.

It is not classified as a “variant of concern”, but scientists have said it carries a high number of mutations.

The Department of Health and Social Care announced that vaccinations would start on September 11 following advice from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

It was due to start in October.

Dame Jenny Harries, UKHSA chief executive, said: “As we continue to live with Covid-19, we expect to see new variants emerge.

“Thanks to the success of our vaccine programme, we have built strong, broad immune defences against new variants throughout the population. However, some people remain more vulnerable to severe illness from Covid-19.”

The UKHSA advised that speeding up the autumn vaccine programme would deliver greater protection, particularly for those at greatest risk of severe illness.

This could also reduce any potential impact on the NHS.

Dame Jenny added that the potential impact of BA.2.86 was “difficult to estimate” due to “limited information” being available.

“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 government and the public as we learn more,” she said.

The NHS said it will work quickly “to ensure as many eligible people as possible are vaccinated by the end of October”.

People have been urged to take up the offer of the vaccines as soon as they are invited to come forward.

Residents of older adult care homes and people who are immunosuppressed will receive their jabs first.

Carers, pregnant women, social care staff, and adults aged over 65 will also be offered a booster this winter.

Professor 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, and 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.”

Steve Russell, NHS director of vaccinations and screening, said: “While we know that flu and Covid usually hit hardest in December and January, the new Covid variant presents a greater risk now, which is why we will be ensuring as many people as possible are vaccinated against Covid sooner.”

Health minister Maria Caulfield said the move “makes sense”.

“As our world-leading scientists gather more information on the BA.2.86 variant, it makes sense to bring forward the vaccination programme,” she 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.

“I encourage anyone invited for a vaccination – including those yet to have their first jab – to come forward as soon as possible.”

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