he Government has been urged to “get on” with a coronavirus booster programme rather than waiting for advice from vaccine experts.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to confirm that a rollout will begin this month, saying older people are the priority as autumn and winter approach.
But the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is yet to provide a recommendation on boosters.
The committee’s deputy chairman Professor Anthony Harnden said this week that it is “highly likely” there will be a booster programme, but a final decision has not been made.
He said the committee is awaiting the results of the Cov-Boost study, which is looking at different vaccines to see what immune responses they give and whether jabs can be mixed and matched.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that just a few days in a pandemic can make “a big difference”, as he urged politicians to go ahead rather than waiting for the JCVI advice.
He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on Friday: “I understand why scientists are taking their time but I think in a pandemic politicians can also read the rooms and see the direction of travel.
“I think Anthony Harnden, on your programme yesterday gave a very clear hint… that they are likely to recommend boosters.
“In a pandemic I think even a few days can make a big difference. So I think we should just get on, not wait for that advice, get on with a booster programme.”
Prof Harnden said there is “very complicated modelling and data analysis” going on to decide who should get a booster and when, adding experts do not want to jab people too soon and then be unable to do so again if a new variant emerges.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson said: “The priorities now are the older generation going into autumn and winter, and we have always said there would be a booster programme in September – in this month – and we are going ahead with that.”
Pressure is also mounting for a decision on jabbing 12 to 15-year-olds, something the JCVI has also not yet recommended.
Meanwhile, an agreement to share vaccine doses with Australia will allow the UK to better align timings of vaccine supply with future need, including for any booster programme or extension of the rollout to younger teenagers, the Department of Health and Social Care said.
Four million doses of the Pfizer jab will be sent from the UK as part of a Covid-19 vaccine deal, with Australia agreeing to return the same “overall volume of doses” before the end of the year, the department said.
The agreement will share doses “at the optimum time to bolster both our countries’ vaccination programmes”, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
He said: “Vaccines have built a strong wall of defence in the UK and we want to support nations around the world in recovering from Covid-19 and improving access to vaccines.
“Our agreement with Australia will share doses at the optimum time to bolster both our countries’ vaccination programmes.
“By working with international partners to co-ordinate the rollout of life-saving vaccines, we will protect more people from this awful virus and save lives.”
The first batch of 292,000 doses to Australia is due to be shipped shortly.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who announced the move in a press conference from Canberra on Friday, said: “The plane is on the tarmac now. It will be leaving tomorrow.
“Those doses will be coming over the course of the next few weeks, which will see us double the Pfizer doses that we have during September.
“This means from Downing Street to Down Under, we are doubling down on what the Pfizer doses are here in Australia this month.”
Australia has one of the slowest vaccine rollouts among wealthy countries, with just 36.4% of people over the age of 16 fully vaccinated, according to the Australian Immunisation Register.
The deal with Australia comes as the UK announced that the latest batch of its Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccines has been delivered through the Covax scheme, designed to ensure vaccines are available for poorer countries around the world.
The Government said more than nine million Covid-19 vaccines from the UK have now been sent to developing nations across Africa and Asia.
The agreement with Australia is separate to the commitment to send 100 million vaccines overseas, the DHSC said.