British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced a new effort to get the country Covid-19 booster shots by New Year's Day, saying the region faces a "tidal wave" of new coronavirus infections.
In a national broadcast Sunday evening, Johnson said the government will try to get boosters to residents 18 and older by the end of the month. His original timeline had been to have the United Kingdom up to three vaccine doses by the end of January, but that has changed amid fears about the new omicron variant.
One person infected with omicron has died in the country, the prime minister said Monday. Another 10 people in England have been hospitalized with the variant, the majority of whom had two vaccines, the U.K. Health Security Agency said in a tweet.
"I think the idea that this is somehow a milder version of the virus, I think that’s something we need to set on one side and just recognize the sheer pace at which it accelerates through the population," Johnson said during a visit to a London vaccination clinic.
The booster effort is a “national mission,” with offerings of pop-up vaccination centers and daily clinics. Johnson said Sunday that he expects adults whose last shots were at least three months ago to be able to walk in or book appointments starting Monday.
However, that plan didn't go as smoothly as he may have wished. Demand on the National Health Service website was so high that it recommended coming back to book vaccine appointments Tuesday or Wednesday. People visiting walk-in vaccination centers reported on social media that there were long lines, as well as a shortage of the vaccine for everyone who showed up.
The health service, which provides U.K. residents with free rapid Covid test kits, ran out of the kits Monday.
On Sunday, the British government raised its official coronavirus threat level to 4, the second highest on its scale. Level 4 indicates that transmission levels are rising and that the national health care system is at risk.
U.K. scientists say existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to the omicron variant, although preliminary data show that effectiveness appears to rise to 70 percent to 75 percent after a third vaccine dose.
Johnson warned Sunday that “there is a tidal wave of omicron coming.”
“We already know it is so much more transmissible that a wave of omicron through a population that was not boosted would risk a level of hospitalization that could overwhelm our NHS, and lead, sadly, to very many deaths,” he said Sunday.
To reach its goal, Johnson said, the country will have to match the NHS’ best vaccination day on record and beat that number day after day. He warned that some appointments might have to be canceled as resources shift to the booster effort.
“I say directly to those of you on the front lines: I must ask you to make another extraordinary effort now,” he said. “So we can protect you and your colleagues and, above all, protect your patients from even greater pressures next year.”
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the emergence of the highly transmissible new strain “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when Covid is already widespread.
The doctors said early evidence shows that the omicron variant is spreading much faster than the currently dominant delta variant and that vaccines offer less protection against it. British officials say the omicron variant is likely to replace the delta variant as the dominant strain in the U.K. within days.
“Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalizations from omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly,” they said.
Concerns about the new variant led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, vaccination certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs, and people are being urged to work from home if possible.
Many scientists say that’s unlikely to be enough, however, and they are calling for tougher measures.
Scientists in South Africa, where the omicron variant was first identified, say they see signs that it may cause less severe disease than the delta variant, but they caution that it is too soon to be certain.