Seven million more over-40s will be able to book booster jabs from today, after Boris Johnson said the programme needed to go faster.
Nine days after the extension of the booster programme was announced to protect against the Omicron variant, over-40s who had their second doses more than three months ago will be able to book appointments online.
Along with people with chronic conditions, they will also be able to book appointments up to a month in advance of becoming eligible.
First jabs for this group are expected to be administered tomorrow after a spat between NHS and public health chiefs over who was to blame for the delay was finally resolved.
Last week the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation halved the gap between second and third doses to three months and said that all over-18s should have boosters.
Although all adults are now eligible, under-40s are not expected to get the chance to book until next week or the week after in order to prioritise those most at risk.
Sir Keir Starmer criticised the government for being slow to step up the booster programme more than a week after promising to put it “on steroids” in the face of the new variant.
However, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, insisted that the government was “boosting the booster programme”.
“We are halving the gap that people have to wait to get booster to three months — prioritising those most at risk of serious illness and strengthening our collective defences in light of the Omicron variant,” he said.
The NHS vaccine programme began a year ago today. Amanda Pritchard, the head of NHS England, said: “On the anniversary of the first vaccine in the world, the latest update from the NHS means an additional seven million people aged 40 and over will be able to book in for their life-saving booster and will be invited two months on from their second dose, a month in advance of becoming eligible.”
She said that “there is a lot we do not know about the Omicron variant but experts believe that even if existing vaccines are less effective they will give protection . . . So I would urge anyone eligible and invited to come forward as soon as possible, and to keep checking for appointments in their area.”
While saying that the vaccine drive was in its most complex phase, Pritchard insisted it was “continuing at speed in the run-up to Christmas”.
Yesterday, 329,165 third jabs were reported, with the rolling average having risen only 5 per cent since the expansion was announced last Monday.
Detailed instructions on the expansion were delayed last week while NHS bosses agreed that GPs could cut some routine checks to focus on boosters.
This week a dispute erupted between NHS England and the UK Health Security Agency over who was to blame for a delay in paperwork needed to give non-medical vaccinators approval to give jabs under the new rules.
In the meantime walk-in centres with doctors on site were able to offer jabs to under-40s and those less than six months from a second dose, while those without medical staff were not, leading to widespread confusion. Last night legal approval was finally granted for a full expansion of the programme.
Johnson said: “The booster programme is the fastest in Europe, I think we have done more boosters than any comparable country.” But he added: “That doesn’t mean it couldn’t go faster.” He has promised that all adults in England will be able to book a jab by the end of January.
The prime minister told people that “now is the time to get it” and promised that allowing people boosters after a three-month gap “will lead to a big uptick in the programme”.
Starmer said it should be going further. He pointed to promises last week that the programme would reach 500,000 doses a day, similar to the heights this year.
“We are in a race now between this booster regime and the new variant,” the Labour leader said. “The government should have acted weeks ago. It absolutely now needs to ramp this up and ramp it up immediately.”