Sadiq Khan and Tony Blair today called for Covid vaccines to be fast-tracked to young people in places where the Indian Covid variant is surging.
The London mayor said he asked Health Secretary Matt Hancock and vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi to consider the plan to jab people as young as 18 in high risk areas, but the Government isn’t keen.
Official data show London boroughs are some of the worst performing in England when it comes to vaccinations, with some having fewer than six out of 10 eligible adults immunised so far.
At the same time, officials say, the new Indian variant is spreading quickest in places with poor coverage.
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said ministers should ‘absolutely’ vaccinate young people – who are most likely to spread the disease – in Indian variant hotspot areas.
Currently, official guidance says only Britons aged 38 and above can come forward for their Covid vaccine appointment.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng today said he didn’t approve of the suggestion and that the rollout method so far – using age groups – has been ‘very effective’.
SAGE advisers suggested the policy in meetings earlier this month and said it could ‘dampen’ outbreaks but it would take at least two weeks to have an impact and hit vaccine supplies intended for other areas.
Some local authorities such as Bolton are taking matters into their own hands and offering vaccines to younger adults in a bid to stop the spread of the Indian variant, which last week spooked Mr Johnson into admitting the first signs that lockdown easing plans could be under threat.
More than 6,200 people – thought to be of all ages, not just those over 38 and eligible for a jab – were vaccinated in Bolton at the weekend.
An Oxford University at the weekend today showed current vaccines still work well against the variant meaning the focus on controlling the strain will be slowing it down.
Sadiq Khan said he had approached Matt Hancock about the proposal over the weekend, but suggested it fell on deaf ears. (Pictured on Sky News)
Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said on Times Radio today: ‘Taking a more varied approach to the way we do the vaccine rollout at this stage, given the problems and the challenge of Indian variant is absolutely sensible’
Members of the public are pictured queuing outside a vaccination centre in Bolton this morning as the local authorities rush to get jabs to as many people as possible
London has the ten areas with the lowest vaccine uptake in the UK, NHS figures show
Mr Khan has urged ministers to kick-start surge vaccinations in parts of London where the variant is spreading quickly to stop it getting out of hand.
In Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea only 58 per cent of all the eligible over-40s had taken up the offer of a vaccine by May 9 – fewer than anywhere else in England.
‘What I’m saying to the Government is there are five boroughs in particular with high numbers of these cases,’ Mr Khan told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
‘What we’d like to see is the vaccine being accelerated in these areas with younger Londoners receiving the vaccine sooner than other parts of London because the early evidence is it does appear that if you receive the vaccine, particularly both doses, you may be less likely to catch it.
BOTTOM 10 AREAS IN ENGLAND FOR VACCINE UPTAKE IN OVER-40s
Kensington + C.
H.smith + Fulham
57.7 per cent
57.7 per cent
60.8 per cent
60.9 per cent
61.1 per cent
62.9 per cent
63.1 per cent
64.3 per cent
65.0 per cent
65.3 per cent
‘The spread is less but also the consequences should you test positive are less serious as well.’
Public Health England data show that London overall has the most cases of the Indian variant in the country, with more than 400 positive tests linked back to the strain.
This includes all 31 boroughs of the city, however, and other areas – notably Bolton and Blackburn in the North West – have had worse infection rates at a local level.
Mr Khan called for the vaccine rollout to become more ‘nimble’ to target areas where protection is low, vaccinating younger people to try and prevent the spread of the virus.
He told Sky News he wanted ‘those who are younger, who would have to wait a few weeks, to have this vaccine now to avoid the strain spreading’.
Tony Blair told Times Radio that the Government should ‘absolutely’ consider tweaking the rollout to cover younger people in high risk areas quicker.
He added: ‘Taking a more varied approach to the way we do the vaccine rollout at this stage, given the problems and the challenge of Indian variant is absolutely sensible.’
But Mr Kwarteng defended the Government sticking to its strategy.
He said on Sky: ‘The Government has very clear guidelines in terms of the ordered way in which we roll out the vaccine.
‘That has been working and has been a very effective rollout, and we would suggest that people should do it in the correct order, in the right way.’
On some areas taking matters into their own hands he added: ‘We’ve got very firm guidelines and we want people to follow those.’
SAGE advisers to the Government have not come out in favour of surge vaccination because it has drawbacks as well as positives.
In documents published last week they said: ‘Increasing regional vaccination in areas where it is prevalent could dampen growth in infections, although it takes several weeks for vaccines to provide protection.
‘The benefits would need to be balanced against the costs of moving vaccines from elsewhere. ‘
And Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: ‘The two issues with that are that, first of all, we’re really not quite sure how well the vaccines will interrupt transmission, particularly for this new variant.
‘We do know they protect people against getting sick and that’s something we can hold on to and use as a strategy.
‘The other thing is, that after a first dose of these vaccines, it does take two-three weeks at least before that protection begins to emerge, so what you do now is not really going to have much influence over what happens over the next couple of weeks.
‘So for those two reasons we do need to think strategically about what we do with the vaccine doses that we’ve got at the moment over the next two weeks right around the country, in order to minimise the chances of this new variant causing a very major third wave.’
Mr Khan’s call for ‘hyper-local’ vaccine rollout comes as data for April showed that the borough of Hillingdon had the most cases of the variant in London up to May 1 (11).
It was followed by Ealing (7), and Tower Hamlets and Bromley, which had six each.
That data, provided by the Sanger Institute, excludes cases due to surge testing or travellers, giving a picture of transmission on the ground. There are likely many more cases of the variant since the figures were compiled.
Alongside this, London has consistently had the lowest Covid vaccine uptake rates in the country, with all ten local authorities with the fewest number of jabs in the capital.
Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea have the lowest uptake rates in the country (57.7 per cent among over-40s), followed by Newham (60.8 per cent) and Hackney (60.9 per cent).
In Hillingdon it was 74 per cent, while in Ealing it was 65 per cent, Tower Hamlets 65 per cent and in Bromley 80 per cent.
Ministers have been mulling over plans to launch surge vaccinations in hotspots for the variant in the country.
But they are mindful that this will lead to jabs being redirected from other areas, delaying vaccinations for some parts of society.
Boris Johnson said on Friday over-50s would see the gap between doses cut to eight weeks, to spark protection more quickly amid mounting cases of the mutant strain.
Local health chiefs have attempted to launch surge vaccinations, but the plans were shot down by health chiefs who insist they must stick to the age-centred priority list.
HILLINGDON: Covid cases in the borough remain flat. Sanger Institute data suggest it had the most infections with the virus in London by May 1
EALING: Covid cases also remain low in Ealing, which data suggests has Indian variant cases
TOWER HAMLETS: Cases are also still low in this borough despite the Indian variant being detected here
BROMLEY: There have been a few cases of the Indian variant in this borough, but its infection rate remains very low overall
Surge testing has also been launched in five London boroughs to root out cases of the mutant strain.
These are Hillingdon (HA4 area), Hounslow (Woodlands area), Redbridge (targeted in IG1 and IG6 postcodes), Kensington and Chelsea (W11) and Tower Hamlets (E1)
An Oxford University study rushed out to study the Indian variants ability to evade vaccines, shows jabs are ‘nearly as effective’ against the strain as the old virus.
AstraZeneca and Pfizer doses still created enough antibodies to neutralise the highly contagious strain and reduce the risk of hospitalisation and death, they concluded.
It was also less vaccine resistant than the South African variant, which sparked concern among scientists and has led to surge testing.
Sir John Bell, Oxford’s regius chair of medicine and a member of the Government’s vaccines taskforce, told The Times immunity from jabs against the Indian variant was sufficient.
‘It looks okay. It’s not perfect but it’s not catastrophically bad,’ he said.
‘There’s a slight reduction in the ability to neutralise the virus, but it’s not very great and certainly not as great as you see with the South African variant.’
Scientists have split the Indian variant into three separate strains, but only one B.1.617.2 is sparking concerns.
This mutant strain carries the L452R and P681R mutations which are thought to make it more transmissible.
But it lacks the E484Q change associated with making vaccines less effective. B.1.617.1 and B.1.617.3 have this mutation.