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Over-70s will start to get booster Covid vaccines from September to protect them from new virus variants as the Government drives ahead with its jabs rollout.
In an interview with The Telegraph, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, revealed details of the plan, which will see some people have three doses within the first 10 months of the jabs being in use.
The first booster doses will go to people in the top four priority groups for the original rollout – those aged over 70 as well as frontline NHS and social care workers.
Mr Zahawi also revealed that ministers were expecting up to eight vaccines to be available by the autumn with a number made in the UK, including one that could protect from three different Covid variants in a single jab.
Asked when the booster jabs would begin, he said: "The most likely date will be September. Jonathan Van-Tam [the deputy chief medical officer] thinks that if we are going to see a requirement for a booster jab to protect the most vulnerable, [it] would be around September.”
His comments come ahead of the relaxation of lockdown rules on Monday, which will allow people to meet outside in groups of up to six or two households.
Concern about the spread of Covid in Europe continues, with France recording almost 42,000 new cases and Germany around 21,500 on Friday, compared to the UK's 6,000.
Escalating the row over vaccine supply, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned Britain against trying to "blackmail" the EU over jabs – but Mr Zahawi moved to calm concerns by insisting the Government was pushing ahead with its rollout and stressing that the manufacture of some new vaccines would happen in the UK.
"However the virus behaves, we're going to be ready," he said, stressing that working with so many different producers would help "future-proof" against any unforeseen variants emerging.
Drive-through vaccine centres will soon be opening to help counter vaccine hesitancy among people in their 30s, 40s and 50s, Mr Zahawi said. He added that children aged 12 to 17 could be first to get a jab if safe, after The Telegraph reported that under-18s could start getting vaccines from August.
The minister also opened the door to churches being allowed to check people's Covid status, saying: "If we want our lives back, I think we've got to at least – if nothing else – look at all this stuff."
The Covid vaccine rollout has been a standout government success, with 29 million people having been given a first dose – more than half the adult population. The Government has said all adults will be offered a first jab by the end of July, but has confirmed little about what will follow.
Much focus has been on the "booster" vaccines, which would be given to people who have already had a jab because they will provide better protection against newer virus variants.
Currently, two Covid vaccines are available in the UK – the ones made by AstraZeneca and Pfizer – with doses of a third, made by Moderna, expected next month. Mr Zahawi said the Government was already talking to those three manufacturers about creating new versions of their jab that would be more effective against variants.
Eight vaccines could eventually be approved by UK health regulators, including one by Novavax that can cover multiple different variants.
"The Novavax technology allows us to have a bi-variant or tri-variant vaccine in the way you do with flu. So inside the actual vaccine itself, it can have more than one variant," Mr Zahawi said, adding that Novavax would be available for the autumn vaccination drive.
The "booster" Covid jabs will not be administered at the same time as flu vaccines, although both programmes will run alongside each other.
The need for new variant vaccines was underscored by papers released by the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Friday. One warned that current vaccines, including Pfizer and Moderna, may be 10 times less effective against variants such as that from South Africa.
The papers cite a study in South Africa which found that those who had previously been infected with the original variant of Covid had no lower risk against the new type, suggesting no antibody protection.
Mr Zahawi said drive-through centres for people to get vaccines were likely to appear across Britain in the coming months, explaining: "We did some fantastic pilots of drive-in jabs that went really well. And again, as we go down the cohorts in the current deployment you're going to see more of that.
"It's a great way as you do the under-50s, the under-40s, under-30s. Convenience becomes a much greater tool to deploy because you want to make sure for those people, where we think there may be greater hesitancy, we make it as convenient as we can make it."
Earlier this week, The Telegraph reported that August is the earliest possible rollout date for Covid vaccinations for children, though no decisions have yet been taken. Mr Zahawi said a number of manufacturers including Moderna were holding trials, being closely watched by ministers, to see whether that was safe.
He added: "If the regulator then does approve the Moderna vaccine, then we will absolutely look at offering it to the 12 to 17-year-olds."
On Friday, Boris Johnson talked to Joe Biden, the US president, on a call during which both warned against any new barriers to vaccine exports.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The leaders discussed the fight against coronavirus and updated each other on their countries' vaccine rollouts. The Prime Minister stressed that global access to vaccines will be key to defeating the pandemic."