Boris Johnson will put his trust in a “massive” booster vaccination campaign as he seeks to avoid further lockdowns amid fears of a tough winter for the NHS.
The Government will set out its blueprint for “living with the virus” through the winter, with a third jab on offer for all over-50s as part of the package.
But there are concerns in Whitehall about an increase in coronavirus cases hitting at the same time as a flu outbreak, with experts warning “we’re not out of the woods”.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has given advice to ministers on a booster campaign and the Government will set out the approach in England later on Tuesday.
It is expected all over-50s will be offered another jab, starting with the over-70s and the most vulnerable.
The Pfizer/BioNTech jab will be administered at least six months after the second dose amid concerns the protection it gives to older people fades over time.
Ministers believe it will help ensure the NHS is not overwhelmed by new cases as it moves into autumn and winter.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid will set out the details when he unveils the Government’s winter Covid plan for England in a Commons statement on Tuesday.
Boris Johnson will then lead a Downing Street news conference, despite the death on Monday of his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl.
Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said further lockdowns will be an “absolutely last resort” under the plan.
“We’re about to embark on a massive booster campaign and of course a flu vaccination programme – I am concerned about flu, we haven’t had much flu circulating anywhere in the world, and in a bad year we could lose up to 25,000 people to flu,” he told Sky News.
“The direction we’re taking – a massive booster campaign, a varied surveillance system, a really fit for purpose test and trace system – that is where we think we will be able to end up, confident that we have the infrastructure in place to deliver on this.
“But of course, we have to have contingency planning. All the time we have information coming in on how the virus is behaving.
“Winter gives the virus an inbuilt advantage – boosters reduce that advantage by hopefully taking the most vulnerable out of harm’s way.”
He told the BBC the boosters could be the “last piece of the jigsaw to allow us to transition this virus from pandemic to endemic” and by next year there could be a flu-style annual jab.
Mr Zahawi said he hoped the booster shots could be administered alongside flu jabs, but a 15-minute observation period for mRNA vaccines like the Pfizer version could complicate that.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which advises the Government, said current data suggest “we’re not out of the woods” and the Covid-19 figures “do not bode well for winter”.
He told Sky News: “We can see from the figures that we’re still nearing a thousand deaths a week and thousands of hospitalised patients that are challenging capacity in our hospitals – and of course making care for non-Covid patients extremely difficult as well because of the stretch of the staff that are in those hospitals who have been under pressure for 18 months now.”
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) panel which advises ministers, warned of a tough time ahead for the NHS.
“Now that we’re opening up society, we’ve got to… live with not just Covid but the flu will come back, RSV (respiratory syncytial virus) bronchiolitis will come back, so I think we’re going to have a bit of a rough winter,” he told the BBC.
He added: “I can predict that the NHS is going to have a really tough time and it wouldn’t surprise me if local directors of public health may be suggesting use of face masks in shops and on public transport.”
The winter plan will see vaccines as the first line of defence, supported by testing, public health advice and a new variant surveillance system.
It is thought ministers will retain the options of a return to wearing face masks in public places and restoring work-from-home advice if cases take off again.
However, other measures – such as requiring vaccine passports for people attending nightclubs or other crowded venues – have already been shelved.
It is expected the Government will announce it is repealing a swathe of powers taken through the Coronavirus Act which are no longer considered necessary.
They include measures to close down sectors of the economy, apply restrictions to events and gatherings and powers to detain infectious people.
Some measures will be retained – including sick pay from day one for people who are self-isolating, powers to direct schools to remain open if they close against Government guidance, and helping the NHS get emergency resources.
It will remain a legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive for the disease.
Alongside the winter plan, Mr Zahawi said vaccines will be offered to 12 to 15-year-olds from next week after the UK’s chief medical officers backed the move on Monday.
Public health expert Professor Devi Sridhar, from the University of Edinburgh, told ITV’s Good Morning Britain the “next issue on the horizon” could be the prospect of offering vaccines to children as young as five.
“It looks like Pfizer is going for approval of the vaccine for five to 11-year-olds in the United States in October so this is going to be the next issue on the horizon – once we deal with the 12 to 17-year-olds whether we do that for the under-12s.”