UK sets out pandemic plan for fall and winter; booster shots for over 50s to begin next week

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LONDON — U.K. lawmakers on Tuesday outlined the government's fall-winter plan to tackle the coronavirus crisis, detailing a series of policies aimed at averting the need for more lockdowns.

It comes shortly after British officials gave the green light to offer Covid-19 vaccine boosters to vulnerable people and everyone aged over 50-years-old six months after their second dose.

The U.K.'s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said it recommended that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was used for the booster dose, or alternatively a half-dose of a Moderna shot.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he had accepted this advice from the JCVI, and the National Health Service in England expects to begin next week. Wales' health minister has accepted JCVI's advice on booster vaccines.

Health and care policy is devolved across the U.K., with different provisions made in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Separately, all children aged 12 to 15-years-old in England will be offered one dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech shot. The move, which follows in the footsteps of many other countries, is designed to help reduce disruption to education.

Speaking on Tuesday afternoon at a press conference from Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson compared the current situation to the same period a year earlier.

In one way, "our position today is actually more challenging," Johnson said, citing a much higher level of Covid cases. "But, in many other crucial respects, the British people, all of us collectively and individually, are incomparably better placed to fight the disease."

The prime minister said more than 80% of people aged over 16-years-old have now been fully vaccinated and Covid antibodies are in 90% of adults.

When asked what the trigger might be for the government to enact so-called "plan B" contingency measures, Johnson replied: "I think just bear in mind what we are trying to prevent and that is the overwhelming of the NHS. That's got to remain the objective."

"What I would stress about plan B is that contains a number of different shots in the locker. And you wouldn't necessarily play them all at once, far from it. You'd want to do things in a graduated way," Johnson said.

Speaking alongside the prime minister, Patrick Vallance, the U.K. government's chief scientific advisor, said the link between Covid infections and hospitalizations would be an important indicator through the fall and winter.

Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, added the rate of change in hospitalizations and the overall state of the NHS would also be closely monitored.

What's the plan?

Addressing lawmakers in the House of Commons, Javid outlined what he described as the government's "five pillars" of the fall-winter Covid plan. These pillars referred to vaccine uptake, test, trace and isolate, supporting the NHS and social care, government guidance and communication, and an international approach to the pandemic.

Among the policies, Javid said support for those self-isolating would continue, with PCR testing to remain available free of charge, as will symptom-free lateral flow tests.

Contact tracing through the NHS test and trace system is also set to continue, and financial and practical support will be made available to those eligible.

The health secretary suggested it was "highly likely" that health care staff and those working in social care settings would face mandatory Covid vaccines to protect those around them.

People will be encouraged to meet outdoors when possible over the fall and winter period in order to keep seasonal respiratory illnesses, such as flu and Covid, at bay, Javid said. The government will also look to publish a new framework for international travel.

Should the NHS come under "unsustainable" pressure in the coming months, Javid said the government had a "plan B" of contingency measures that could be rolled out in England. These included the possibility of making masks mandatory in certain settings, vaccine passports for events and encouraging remote working.

Winter could be 'bumpy at times'

Professor Neil Ferguson, a leading epidemiologist from Imperial College London, said earlier this week that another nationwide lockdown could not be ruled out "completely" in the coming months.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4's "Today" show on Monday, Ferguson was asked whether another lockdown would not be necessary following the country's vaccination drive. "I hope so," he said. "I don't think that you can rule out anything completely but I hope so."

"I think with this level of immunity that we have in the population, if we do need to further drive down transmission then it may not require full lockdown," Ferguson said.

To date, the U.K. has recorded almost 7.3 million Covid cases and 134,587 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

On Monday, the country reported 30,825 new coronavirus cases and 61 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. This compares to 29,173 infections and 56 fatalities recorded on Sunday, while over 41,000 cases and 45 deaths were announced this time last week.

England's deputy chief medical officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, warned on Tuesday that the coronavirus crisis in the coming months could be "bumpy at times."

He said other respiratory viruses were "highly likely" to make a return over this period, saying the government's aim was to "stay on top of things."

In winter, people tend to spend more time indoors clustered together, with less ventilation and less personal space than in summer.

Respiratory infections, such as coronaviruses, are spread by droplets that are released when a person coughs or sneezes. Health experts say colder and drier conditions in winter strongly affects the transmission of flu-like illnesses.

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