Britain’s current Covid booster jab drive is the slowest yet, MailOnline can reveal amid growing fears over Arcturus. Just 1million doses were dished out in the first three weeks of the campaign.
This is dwarfed by the huge take-up seen during last spring’s top-up programme, when nearly 1.4million jabs were administered over the same period.
Leading experts today claimed the ‘disappointing’ pace could be down to vaccine fatigue.
Others hinted that the Covid vaccines’ success itself could be to blame, with Brits now underestimating the virus’s threat thanks to society’s wall of immunity.
Some scientists called for the rollout to be expanded to the over-50s in the face of Arcturus, a super-infectious new variant causing carnage in India. Its prevalence in Britain has trebled since the start of April.
However, Whitehall insiders insisted that the discrepancy is purely down to the jab only being offered in care homes during the first fortnight of the campaign, which kicked off on April 3.
The graph shows that 1million Covid boosters were dished out in the first three weeks of the NHS Spring booster campaign, compared to 1.37million during the same period last year and 2.8million in the Autumn rollout
NHS England officially launched its spring booster campaign on April 3 (shown in graphic), opening up the latest round of jabs to the over-75s, care home residents and over-fives with health conditions making them more vulnerable to Covid
Over-75s and adults with specific health conditions which put them at risk weren’t given the opportunity to get another jab until last week.
For comparison, NHS bosses opened up the programme after one week last year.
The campaign is accompanied by the usual pleas encouraging eligible Brits to come forward and roll up their sleeves.
NHS England figures show only 1,031,263 doses were dished out by April 25, the latest date figures are available for.
About 5million people in England are eligible for the spring booster.
This suggests only about a fifth of this group have had a vaccine.
For comparison, last spring boosters were offered to the exact same group.
Some 1.37million top-up jabs were administered across the first three weeks of that campaign, implying around 27 per cent were reached.
In the autumn rollout, which was wider than the spring programme, all Brits over 50 were eligible.
In the first three weeks of the autumn drive, 2.8million (11 per cent) of the 26million eligible Brits got their jab.
Professor Anna Whittaker, an expert in vaccines and behavioural medicine from the University of Stirling, said the data ‘potentially indicates vaccine fatigue’ among the population.
She highlighted people may be growing complacent about Covid, given the success prior vaccines had on warding off serious illness.
‘Due to earlier vaccines, people having mild Covid and surviving may also make them feel maybe it’s not as big a deal as it seemed at the start of the pandemic when death tolls and serious illness were high,’ she said.
But Professor Whittaker added people would be mistaken to take this attitude.
She said: ‘Covid has not gone away and with rapid mutations, different variants will continue to emerge and may have more severe effects, although until there are more cases it is difficult to say.
‘I would strongly recommend taking up the booster if you are offered it, given we are in a country where this is possible and many people are not.’
Professor Whittaker also called for the current booster drive to be expanded.
‘I would like to see it offered at younger ages, such as 50 plus, if that were possible, given many people in their 50s do have significant comorbidities,’ she said.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, labelled the current pace of the Spring booster rollout ‘disappointing’.
He blamed ‘a mix of increasing complacency about the harmful effects of infection, vaccine fatigue and the lack of messaging from Government’.
Professor Young added the sluggish rollout, in the context of the new Covid variant Arcturus, couldn’t be ignored.
‘The latest Omicron subvariant, XBB.1.16 or Arcturus, is the most infectious version of the Covid virus we have seen so far [and] is causing a surge of infections in India, the US and around the globe,’ he said.
‘Infection with this and any new variant remains a serious risk for the elderly and clinically vulnerable so testing and isolating is still important to protect these individuals from getting infected – but access to testing is now restricted so we are blind to the real levels of infection in the UK.’
About 5million people in England are eligible for the Spring booster
Since the Covid vaccination campaign began in late 2020, more than nine in 10 over-12s in the UK have had at least one jab, while 88.8 per cent have had two and seven in 10 have had three
He noted that bivalent vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are being used in the rollout, which offer protection from serious illness caused by Omicron.
Professor Young echoed calls to expand the current spring booster campaign to over-50s considering the threat posed Arcturus and potentially other new variants yet to emerge.
He said: ‘We should be providing booster jabs to at least all the over-50s to ensure that levels of protection are maintained against Arcturus and any other variants that arise over the coming months.
‘The Covid virus is not done with us yet and will continue to change so we need to remain vigilant.
‘The worry is that with reduced levels of surveillance in the UK, waning immunity from previous infections and vaccinations, poor uptake of the Spring booster jab, and the general level of complacency, we are not well-equipped to handle another wave of infection.’
Professor Paul Hunter, a public health expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that uptake of vaccines usually fall with each repeated dose.
‘So the fact that each subsequent booster campaign was going to have a slower take up and a smaller proportion of people having the booster was entirely predictable,’ he said.
Professor Hunter added: ‘Fortunately the great majority of people now have had [a] vaccine and an infection, thereby giving so called hybrid immunity.
‘We know that hybrid immunity is very durable against severe disease, lasting years rather than months.
‘Nevertheless, the benefits of vaccine for anybody in the at risk group for the spring booster are still worthwhile for people who have not also had covid in the recent past.’
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist who advised the Government on the virus during the pandemic, told MailOnline that most Brits are now ‘adjusting to the fact that Covid is not a bigger threat than many other respiratory viruses’.
He said: ‘They see boosters as nice to have but even the higher risk groups, to whom they are being offered, do not seem to see them as worth searching out.
‘Many people will have some protection from the immune response to previous infections, in addition to vaccination.
‘Personally, I would be more concerned about low take-up in an autumn round, but only if there is a stronger scientific consensus that further boosting is a good idea.’
However, Professor Ian Jones, a virologist at the University of Reading, said current data suggests Arcturus is not driving a rise in deaths and that vaccination efforts should remain focused on the vulnerable.
He said: ‘There will be a vulnerable minority everywhere who do still have risk, probably to any respiratory virus that is going around, and these people do need to keep their antibodies topped up by regular boosts.
‘But for the majority, even a rapidly spreading variant seems to be accepted.’
Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘My guess is that very many people, having been vaccinated, then infected, have just decided that repeated vaccination isn’t for them.
‘They’ve just quietly moved on from Covid.’
Professor Jones suggested that the slow booster uptake may be down to Covid no longer triggering the concern it used to, in part thanks to Omicron and its descendants being milder
He said: ‘The “I had it once and it was just a mild flu” logic is around but I think you also have to note that the virus itself is not what it was.
‘It’s dropped out of sight, and with it the notion of threat and the need to keep topped up.’
Dr Simon Clarke, an infectious disease expert at Reading University, suspected the lacklustre take-up of Spring booster is due to the reduction in scope and public messaging campaign.
The graph shows the number of Arcturus cases in the UK where the region has been confirmed, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency. This includes 96 cases in England, with the highest rates in London and the North West
Surveillance data shows Arcturus, scientifically called XBB.1.16, makes up around 2.3 per cent of all new cases in the UK. Separate unofficial figures suggest around 65,000 Brits are getting infected each day
India now accounts for 61 per cent of all recorded cases of XBB.1.16, UKHSA officials warned. The dominant variant in the country, between March 20 and April 3, over two thirds (68 per cent) of all cases logged were the Arcturus strain. Separate figures from the Oxford University-run platform Our World in Data show new daily cases hit 9,526 six days ago on April 18, up from 625 recorded one month earlier
Health-tech firm ZOE, which has carried on its daily Covid surveillance project, unlike the Government, predicts some 1.05million people in the UK were ill with Covid as of yesterday. This is down almost 400,000 on the 1.49million reported at the end of March
Other Omicron sub-variants include Kraken (XBB.1.5) and Orthrus (CH.1.1). Currently Kraken remains the dominant strain in the UK, as of April 14, causing 44 per cent of cases, while Omicron accounts from 8 per cent and Arcturus, 2.3 per cent, the UKHSA said
He said: ‘The current Covid booster programme is on a smaller scale than those that have gone before. Consequently, it seems that the surrounding publicity is much more limited too.
‘Previous experience of annual winter flu vaccination campaigns tells us that the public can be reluctant to make the effort to get them done and I strongly suspect that the same thing is happening with Covid.’
This could lead to some of the most vulnerable Brits being hospitalised and dying ‘when they could have been saved’, Dr Clarke warned.
Dr Clarke added that concern about Arcturus is premature and it was important not to spark panic about every new Covid variant, as it could lead to public indifference in the future when there is a severe variant that requires a ‘concerted response’.
Dr Alberto Giubilini, an expert ethics of vaccination from Oxford University, said he thought the slow uptake of the Spring jab drive could simply be result of the virus fading from the spotlight.
He said: ‘Once our lives have resumed after the pandemic, our perception of Covid has changed.
‘It is no longer a socially relevant phenomenon affecting our everyday life.
‘To most people, it is now just one disease or an inconvenience among many that might happen to us.’
He urged caution around hyping up the need to get a booster and instead present the risks and benefits of getting vaccinated as transparent as possible.
Dr Giubilini said: ‘People should be provided with as much information as possible about the risks and the benefits of the vaccine.
‘If the communication is transparent, the people at high risk from Covid who would benefit from the vaccines would be more inclined to get their booster.
‘Many people know these facts, so I am not sure that encouraging vaccination would have any effect at this point, and I would not be surprised if it would backfire. It might be perceived by many as a failure of transparency.’
Arcturus, technically known as XBB.1.16 but given its name by Covid variant trackers, has swept across India, where it sparked a 90-fold increase in cases. In response, officials have imposed mask mandates in the worst hit areas.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has detected 135 cases since it first arrived in mid-February.
Professor Francois Balloux, an expert in computational systems biology at University College London, said the previous Kraken (XBB.1.5) Omicron subvariant wave in the UK could explain why Britain hasn’t seen a similar explosion in cases.
He said: ‘In places that didn’t have an XBB.1.5 wave (e.g. India or China), [Arcturus] is expected to do well.
‘Conversely, in places like the UK, it is not expected to have much of an impact on case numbers, and even less so, on hospitalisations and deaths.
‘XBB.1.16 is still at low frequency here in the UK, but it may become the next dominant variant in the future.’