The UK’s most expansive flu vaccination programme is to be launched in September, with all over-50s in England offered the jab for the first time as ministers seek to blunt the impact of a feared second wave of Covid-19.
The government has secured enough vaccines to inoculate 30m people, double the number who received the injection last year, amid fears that the NHS could be overwhelmed if a bad flu season were to coincide with a new peak in coronavirus cases.
Matt Hancock, health secretary, said: “This will be the biggest flu vaccination programme in history, and will help protect our NHS as we head into winter.”
Groups who are already eligible for vaccination — the over-65s, people with certain chronic conditions, pregnant women, primary school aged children and healthcare workers — will continue to receive priority.
But the offer will also be extended to 50-64 year olds, as well as people who are on the shielded list because they are at higher risk of coronavirus complications, together with members of their households.
Also, for the first time, children in year 7 of secondary school — those who have turned 11 no later than August 31 — will be eligible to receive the jab.
Officials were unable to say exactly when the over-50s would be invited for their injections but emphasised that it would not drift as late as February or March.
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said vulnerable people could die from flu. “This winter more than ever, with Covid-19 still circulating, we need to help reduce all avoidable risks,” added Prof Whitty.
Officials said that despite intense worldwide competition for vaccine supplies, the government had acted early enough to secure the doses for the enlarged programme, provided manufacturers met the orders that had been placed.
Earlier the government had said it would expand its coronavirus testing capacity to 500,000 tests a day, from the current 330,000, by the end of October.
A fourth “Lighthouse” mega-lab will open in Newport, South Wales, at the end of August to increase the number of tests that can be processed, with plans for further expansion in the coming months, the government said. The health department hailed “the largest network of diagnostic testing facilities created in British history”.
In addition, senior officials said, there was an “ambition”, but not a target, to increase walk-in testing facilities, with the aim that no one should have to walk for more than 30 minutes to access one in urban areas.
In a separate development on Thursday, it was announced the UK government had spent £100m on a manufacturing facility in Essex to scale up production of a Covid-19 vaccine, as a growing number of pharmaceutical companies report promising results in early-stage trials.
The money will be used to accelerate production of a successful Covid-19 vaccine to meet domestic and international demand, as countries rush to boost their supplies for an unprecedented worldwide immunisation programme.
The manufacturing site, purchased from the genetics, health and nutrition company Benchmark Holdings for £16m, will have capacity to produce millions of vaccine doses per month, for both Covid-19 and future diseases, according to the government.
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It is due to open in December 2021 and will work alongside the £93m Vaccines Manufacturing and Innovation Centre that is being built in Oxfordshire, and is due to open in mid-2021.
This week, Oxford university and AstraZeneca announced that the coronavirus vaccine they are developing showed promising results in the first phase of clinical trials, eliciting neutralising antibodies and T cells, which are thought to help the body develop its immune response.
Phase-one vaccine trials conducted by Moderna in the US, CanSino Biologics, and Pfizer and BioNTech have also shown encouraging signs of eliciting strong immune responses.
The UK government has ordered 100m doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, with the aim of having 1m commercial doses ready by September, and a further 30m by the end of the year.
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