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A person wears a face mask on the London underground, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in London, Britain, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

Britain will offer a Covid-19 booster shot to all adults and could halve the dose interval for booster jabs from six to three months in a bid to accelerate its vaccination programme amid concern over the new Omicron coronavirus variant, as number of new cases found in the country rise.

The move, backed by a scientific advisory body and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, comes as ministers scramble to react swiftly to the new variant, which was first detected in South Africa.

Prime minister Boris Johnson has responded to the emergence of Omicron by making mask-wearing compulsory in shops and on public transport in England.

Until now, only adults in the UK aged 40 and above were eligible for a booster dose six months after their last.

But that timeframe will now be halved to three months, alongside the programme’s expansion to all over-18s, with priority given to older people.

“These measures will protect more people, more quickly and make us better protected as a nation,” Javid told MPs.

He noted it was “a huge step up” for Britain’s vaccination scheme, which was launched last December, almost doubling the number of people eligible for a booster.

“In this race between the vaccines and the virus, the new variant may have given the virus extra legs,” Javid said.

“So our strategy is to buy ourselves time, and to strengthen our defences.”

Britain — badly hit by the pandemic with nearly 145,000 deaths and stubbornly high daily infection rates — is one of several countries to have announced cases of the new variant on their soil.

Six cases of the new strain were detected in Scotland on Monday, two of them in the largest city of Glasgow.

Five others were confirmed in England, Javid told parliament, noting he expected “cases to rise over the coming days”.

‘Potential modifications’

Since the Omicron variant was identified and named last week, the UK government — which has responsibility for health policy in England only — has slapped a travel ban on 10 southern African countries, including South Africa.

It has also reintroduced compulsory testing for travellers, and mandatory mask-wearing in shops and public transport in England, as well as self-isolation for contact cases.

But it has stopped short of advising people to work from home in England, in contrast to devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which have powers to set health policy.

Home-working guidance has remained there since the summer months.

The health secretary said the ramped-up English measures would be in place for an initial three weeks and then reviewed, with MPs set to vote on the plans on Tuesday.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises UK health departments on immunisation, approved expanding the rollout of the booster jabs of Moderna or Pfizer-BioNTech.

Reduce the gap

At a briefing announcing the changes, it said second vaccine doses would also now be offered to children aged 12 to 15 while severely immuno-compromised people should be given a fourth shot as a booster.

The JCVI also said the minimum gap between the second dose and booster should be reduced to three months.

“We do not have evidence at the moment that the vaccines being used do not work against the new Omicron strain,” said June Raine, head of the medicines regulator MHRA.

“We’re in discussion with vaccine manufacturers and the World Health Organization on potential modifications that may be needed for the current vaccines to be maximally effective against the new variants,” she added.

Community transmission

Meanwhile, the four nations of the United Kingdom have all restricted travel to southern Africa, where the variant was first detected last week, in a bid to slow its spread.

But Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said not all of the six cases found in Scotland had recent travel history or known links with others who had travelled to southern Africa.

“This suggests that there might already be some community transmission of this variant,” she told a news conference.

“There is no evidence yet that this is sustained, nor any evidence from the enhanced surveillance that it is widespread at this stage.”

Sturgeon said the timeframe of the cases suggested it was unlikely but not impossible that there was a link to the COP26 climate change conference that took place in Glasgow earlier this month.

Asked whether he believed there was community transmission in the UK, Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters: “I have got no evidence of that as it stands.”

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