He said it would be a “real game-changer” and mean that the UK was the first major economy to move from “pandemic to endemic status”.
Mr Zahawi said the booster jabs — which are expected to overlap with an expanded annual flu campaign — would be the biggest vaccine effort yet. He dismissed reports that the Government was considering a two-week “fire break” by extending the October half-term school holidays, saying vaccination was the way to prevent the reintroduction of restrictions.
Speaking on LBC radio, Mr Zahawi said: “It’s the booster programme that, I hope, will allow us to protect the most vulnerable. We will probably break the records we set in the first phase. We will be boosting around 35 million. We will begin that later on this month.”
The Department for Health confirmed Mr Zahawi was referring to booster jabs being given to the same cohorts of individuals identified by the JCVI in June.
This would prioritise, in the first stage: all adults over 70, frontline health and social care workers, elderly residents of care homes, adults aged 16 and over who are immuno-suppressed or considered clinically vulnerable. Stage two would would follow the completion of stage one with “equal emphasis” on the deployment of the flu vaccine. This would involve: all adults aged 50 and over; adults aged 16 to 49 who are in an influenza or Covid at-risk group; adult household contacts of immunosuppressed people.
Final guidance from the Government’s advisory panel, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is expected on booster jabs this week.
Watch: Do coronavirus vaccines affect fertility?
A decision is also awaited on how the third jabs will be delivered, with pharmacies and GP surgeries the most likely as mass vaccination centres, such as a Twickenham stadium and the Science Museum, have closed.
It also remains to be decided whether the annual flu jab will be given at the same time, though the JCVI’s advice is for a “synergistic approach” to maximise take-up of both vaccines.
Vaccines have saved more than 105,000 lives and prevented 143,600 hospitalisations in people aged 65 and over in England, according to Public Health England estimates.
At the weekend, former health secretary Jeremy Hunt urged ministers to press ahead with the booster programme without waiting for the final advice for the JCVI. Ministers are reportedly frustrated at the delays in JCVI giving advice.
Last week Professor Andrew Hayward, of University College London, questioned the ethics of the UK giving boosters to large numbers of low-risk individuals at a time poorer nations are desperate for vaccines.
Mr Zahawi said he has seen no plans for an October “firebreak” lockdown if cases rise as expected this autumn.
He told BBC Breakfast: “It is through the booster programme that I hope ... we can transition the virus from pandemic to endemic status and deal with it year in, year out — it is going to be with us for many years — but not have to close down our economy or take the severe measures we had to sadly take in December of last year.”
Watch: What UK government COVID-19 support is available?