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‘Covid Is Over’ Idea May Threaten Booster Uptake In England, Scientists Warn

The prevailing idea that “Covid is over” may jeopardise England’s autumn booster programme, scientists have said, warning mixed messages about the threat of the disease could reduce the uptake of jabs.

The booster campaign is set to begin on 5 September, with the new dual-variant Covid vaccine from Moderna among those to be administered.

However, with England ditching other Covid measures such as mass testing, and using terms such as “post-pandemic recovery”, experts have raised concerns that many of those eligible may not come forward for their vaccination.

“I think it’s very likely we will see a lower uptake for the autumn Covid-19 vaccine boosters than for the first two vaccinations,” said Azeem Majeed, a GP in west London and professor of primary care and public health at Imperial College London.

“We saw a lower uptake of the first booster last winter and for the second booster that was offered to older people and some other groups in the spring,” he added. “Speaking to my patients, many of them say they feel they have had enough Covid-19 vaccines.”

Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), agreed achieving high uptake may be an issue.

“It’s a concern – especially since all other measures including testing have been dropped so there is a wide perception that the problem [of Covid] is over and done with,” he said.

“However, the fact that the programme is now entirely focused on people at enhanced risk of serious illness may help – the key group will be the elderly, and up until now most of them have come forward when called.”

Majeed said it was important there were clear public messages about the benefits and importance of the booster programme from government agencies, including NHS England, but said there was not much time for such a campaign given vaccinations are planned to start in a matter of weeks.

Prof Stephen Reicher, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science and a professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, agreed.

“People are less likely to heed messages about boosters if, at the same time, government is telling them ‘its all over’, ‘we are post-pandemic’ and ‘it’s not very serious’. Why get vaccinated if there is nothing of concern to get vaccinated against?” he said.

Reicher added it was important to be clear about the threat from Covid, noting for those who are unvaccinated – or for whom the vaccines do not work well – Omicron can pose a serious risk.

“But even for those who have been vaccinated, it is important to get a booster, because immunity fades over time,” he said. “A booster will provide you with good protection against serious disease and death. It will also provide you with protection against long Covid.”

But, he added: “It won’t protect you that well from infection and all the disruption that entails – which is why, alongside promoting the booster, the government need to be considering further measures – like testing and good ventilation – to bring infection levels down.”

Finn also stressed the need for clear communication over the booster programme, including around which jab to have.

“We need to make an effort to inform people and, above all, to avoid a scenario in which people ‘wait’ for a modified vaccine rather than take what is going – if supplies of the bivalent don’t meet demand,” he said.

But there is room for optimism, Finn added. “If the logistics of giving people both Covid and flu jabs at the same visit work out, that will make a big difference [to booster uptake],” he said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “It’s inaccurate to say that a significant number of people didn’t take up their spring booster,” noting that eight out of 10 of those aged 75 and over had the jab.

“We are not complacent about Covid and our world-leading vaccination programme has saved countless lives. That’s why we continue to work hard to reach those people who are still unvaccinated against Covid, including using walk-in and mobile vaccination clinics to increase access and convenience.”

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