COVID and flu vaccines are rolling out across England today having been brought forward after a new coronavirus variant emerged in the UK.
The vaccines are being prioritised for people who are housebound or in care homes, though the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) recommends the jab to over-65s, those with a weakened immune system, pregnant women and people who live with others in these high risk groups.
These other groups will be invited by the NHS to get inoculated from next week.
The COVID variant, BA.2.86, has not been classified as a “variant of concern”, however it is closely being monitored due to its proclivity to mutate.
Speaking to Sky News, UKHSA chief Susan Hopkins said the variant “is about 30 mutations compared to Omicron” when it emerged in December 2021, and around “50 mutations compared to the original wildtype virus” which started the pandemic.
However, the health agency is unclear about its transmissibility, whether it causes an increased infectivity or severity.
The UKHSA cited a rise in COVID case numbers saying it was still “very small” with 3,000 people in hospital with the infection at any one time.
Thirty-three residents and 12 staff members in a Norfolk care home tested positive for COVID after an outbreak at the end of August, an incident which lead to the advancement of the vaccine programme.
Vaccine programmes have already begun in Scotland, while Wales will roll out at the same time as England, and Northern Ireland starts its programme on 18 September.
Responding to whether the unvaccinated majority would be at risk of illness or missing work, Ms Hopkins said: “Some of them will be off work but many won’t because many people now have very mild, asymptomatic illness and don’t even know they have it.
“If we look back over the last year and a half, we’ve had a number of waves of new variants coming in and circulating in the community. It has not disrupted schools, it has not disrupted the economy.”
Meanwhile, NHS England is urging people to get the two jabs to avoid a potential “twindemic” of flu and COVID, which could put pressure on the health service.
NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “With concerns arising over new COVID variants, it’s vital we adapt the programme and bring it forward for those most at risk, and so I strongly urge everyone eligible to come forward as soon as they can for this important protection in colder months.”