Millions of Brits are set to receive Covid and flu jabs as the autumn roll-out kicked off today, amid concerns over a new mutant variant.
Care home residents and those who are housebound in England will be offered both vaccines this week, with the NHS inviting more eligible people to come forward from next Monday.
The over-65s, frontline health and social care workers and pregnant women are among those who will be invited for top-up doses in the coming weeks.
The scheme, which was due to be launched in October, was brought forward by an entire month to boost protection among the most vulnerable amid fears that the Pirola Covid strain would trigger a fresh wave of infection and overwhelm the NHS.
More than 30 cases of the Omicron spin-off, scientifically known as BA.2.86, have been confirmed in England. But officials warn the true scale of the outbreak is much larger and that it is spreading in the community undetected.
Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
While virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms, its ancestor BA.2 had some tell-tale signs. Experts aren’t yet certain, however if it behaves like similar Omicron subvariants, the signs to watch out for include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue
While the variant has not been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ yet by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), it has said it is monitoring the strain closely. This UKHSA graphic shows the number of Pirola cases by date the test containing the infected sample was received. Cases surged on August 26 shortly after the start of the care home outbreak in Norfolk
While the variant has not been classified as a ‘variant of concern’ by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), it is monitoring the strain closely.
The UKHSA confirmed last week that 36 cases of the strain have now been detected, up from just three a week ago. Two are in Scotland while 34 are in England.
Globally, the variant has now been spotted in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa, Portugal, Sweden, Canada, France, Thailand and Switzerland.
Speaking to Sky News this morning, UKHSA chief Susan Hopkins said the variant has ‘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, she said.
Global cases of the Pirola have doubled in the last week and has now been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa , Portugal, Sweden, France, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected
Responding to whether the unvaccinated majority would be at risk of illness or missing work, Ms Hopkins added: ‘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.’
Eligible groups will be able to book their jabs from September 18 through the NHS website, the NHS App or by calling 119.
As well as care home residents and housebound people, the over-65s, frontline health and social care workers and carers are also eligible for Covid and flu vaccines.
People aged 6 months to 64 years in a clinical risk group will also be invited.
This group includes people with a chronic respiratory, heart, kidney or liver disease, as well as those with diabetes, pregnant women and those who are morbidly obese.
GP surgeries and other local NHS services are also contacting people to offer the vaccines.
Additionally, 8million children aged two to 17 will be offered a flu vaccine from next week.
The UKHSA has urged parents to fill out the consent forms for the nasal spray vaccine, which is administered at school and via GP surgeries.
Vaccine programmes have already kicked off in Scotland, while Wales will roll out at the same time as England, and Northern Ireland officially starts its programme on September 18.
Hospital admissions and numbers of beds occupied by Covid patients had also been rising. Latest NHS data shows daily Covid hospital admissions have risen almost 30 per cent since June, with a seven-day rolling average of 322 as of August 25, compared to 251 on June 7
Children aged two to 17 will also be able to have flu vaccinations from next week. The UKHSA is urging parents to fill out the consent forms for the nasal spray vaccine, which is administered at school and via GP surgeries
Latest Covid wastewater sampling data in Scotland also shows it has hit its highest level in over a year at 167 mgc/p/d. It last rose to this figure in June 2022
The rollout will see fewer Brits eligible for a Covid jab in comparison to last year.
In August, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which guides ministers on jab rollouts, said invites will no longer be dished out to millions aged 50-64, in a bid to ‘go back to normal’.
At the time scientists labelled the move ‘troubling’ and ‘short-sighted’, warning cases could again shoot up.
On Friday, a group of cross-party MPs wrote to ministers urging them to extend the booster programme allowing over-50s to have the jab.
Members of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, led by Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, called on the Government to make Covid jabs publicly available to buy privately, like the flu vaccine.
However, health sources have said there are currently no plans to widen the availability of vaccines.
And there is currently no way for Brits to get the jab privately. However, highstreet pharmacies have indicated that they are interested in offering the jab in the future — though insiders believe the jabs wouldn’t be ready until spring at the earliest.
Last autumn, 40 per cent for people in their early 50s took up the offer of a booster, rising to 52 per cent for those in their later 50s.
Those over 75 had a greater turnout for the boosters, with 80 per cent opting to receive another vaccine.
Some 70 per cent of over-75s also opted for a spring booster earlier this year.
NHS England is urging eligible people to get both Covid and flu jabs to avoid a potential ‘twindemic’, which would put pressure on the health service.
NHS director of vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: ‘The NHS flu and Covid vaccination programmes have been very effective in protecting those at greatest risk and we will work at speed to ensure they are protected once again this year, starting with care homes and those who are housebound today.
‘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.
‘NHS staff have worked hard to ensure services are ready for patients to get jabbed at an earlier stage so they can get their protection as soon as possible.’
Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at the UKHSA, said: ‘Older people and those in clinical risk groups remain at highest risk of serious illness from Covid.
‘The vaccine continues to provide the best protection against serious illness and hospitalisation from Covid, so please make sure you get vaccinated when offered and encourage loved ones who are eligible to do the same.’
It comes after the UKHSA confirmed on Friday that 34 Pirola cases have been detected in England.
Of these, 28 came from a single outbreak in a care home in Norfolk, which infected 87 per cent of residents and left one hospitalised.
Health chiefs said this signals a ‘high attack rate’ and could be an early indicator that the strain spreads easily indoors.
UK scientists were first alerted to Pirola on August 14, with concerns immediately triggered due to its large number of mutations.
The UKHSA officially classified it as a variant on August 18 after the first UK case was detected in a hospitalised patient in London.
While only two cases have been confirmed in Scotland, more are suspected as health agencies have detected the variant in wastewater analysis.
Latest Covid wastewater sampling data in Scotland also shows it has hit its highest level in over a year at 167 mgc/p/d.
It last rose to this figure in June 2022.
No Pirola cases have been detected in Wales or Northern Ireland.
In total, five people with confirmed Pirola infections have so far required hospitalisation, though UKHSA analysts last week said no deaths have been recorded.
Experts have also told MailOnline the data suggests that the Omicron sub-variant is more transmissible than its predecessors but that it is no more severe.
However, the true scale of the UK’s outbreak is unclear.
Brits are no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with free community mass testing ending in May 2022.
It means fewer cases are being detected and sequenced — a process which reveals the variant behind an infection.
But virologists have warned it is too early to pinpoint whether BA.2.86 triggers more severe illness than earlier versions of the virus, as scientists are still analysing recently discovered cases.
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease expert based at University College London told MailOnline: ‘Based on the tiny number of BA.2.86 cases diagnosed to date there is no evidence for, but also no reason to expect, a significant shift in symptoms.’
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said that a combination of immunity induced by previous infections, Covid vaccinations and ‘a combination of changes in the virus’ has seen Covid symptoms alter over the last three years.
‘It’s much more like a cold now than when we first experienced Covid,’ he said.