The U.K. will open hundreds more vaccination sites in the coming days, including at soccer stadiums and racecourses, as it tries to massively ramp up delivery of booster shots amid a surge in omicron cases.
The move comes after Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Parliament that the new coronavirus strain now accounts for 20% of confirmed COVID-19 cases in England, while the estimated number of daily infections is about 200,000.
Still, the goal of giving a booster to every adult by year-end is unlikely to be met, the Times of London newspaper reported, citing unidentified NHS leaders.
With two vaccine doses deemed to provide insufficient protection against omicron, the government is accelerating its booster program in an effort to ensure the National Health Service isn’t overwhelmed.
Boris Johnson has said the NHS must beat its daily record for vaccinations — 844,000 in March — “day after day” to achieve the government’s target of offering all adults a booster by the New Year.
“To achieve something on this scale, we need your help,” the prime minister said in a statement late Monday. “So today I’m issuing a call for volunteers to join our national mission to get jabs in arms.”
But there are already significant doubts over whether Johnson will hit his target. Large queues formed outside vaccination centers on Monday and the government’s online booking platform repeatedly crashed.
“It’s a challenging logistical operation,” Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said on Sky News on Tuesday. “There will be teething issues.”
There are also growing warnings from scientists that new pandemic restrictions announced last week, including mandatory face coverings in indoor public spaces and proof of negative tests to enter some venues, will be unable to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed — even with the booster roll out.
On Monday, Johnson refused repeatedly to rule out imposing further rules before Christmas to try to contain omicron. “We take whatever steps are necessary to protect public health,” he told broadcasters, while confirming the first U.K. death linked to the variant.
Tougher curbs would put him on a collision course with members of his ruling Conservative Party, many of whom are already threatening to rebel when the measures announced last week are put to a vote in Parliament on Tuesday.
According to the Spectator magazine, 78 Tory MPs have said they will vote against the government on the use of so-called vaccine passports as of Monday evening — just shy of Johnson’s working majority of about 80 in the Commons.
Still, the new measures are almost certain to pass, as the opposition Labour Party has said it will vote for them. The question is whether more will be needed, especially if the booster program falls short of the target.
More than 90,000 volunteers are already working in almost 3,000 vaccine sites across England. This will be widened to hundreds more sites, mobile units and pop-ups within the next week, Johnson’s office said, including sports stadiums and shopping centers.
“I am convinced that if we don’t prioritize the booster now, the health consequences will be far more grave in the months that lie ahead,” Javid said.
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