Ministers have given GPs in England the green light to provide less care to patients for the next four months so they can join the “national mission” to urgently deliver Covid booster jabs.
Family doctors will spend less time monitoring people with conditions such as diabetes and heart problems, do fewer health checks on people over 75 and stop performing minor surgery until April.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, and NHS bosses have approved the controversial changes so that GPs and practice nurses can join the urgent drive to administer top-up shots as quickly as possible.
In a letter from the health service released on Friday, it was revealed that the booking system for jabs would be updated to reflect the reduction of the time between doses to three months “as soon as possible and no later than 13 December”.
It said the jabs would be delivered “in descending age groups, with priority given to the vaccination of older adults and those in a Covid-19 at-risk group first”. It is understood the rollout could begin earlier, as soon as the UK Health Security Agency updates its guidance. And it confirmed there were “no supply challenges” with either Moderna or Pfizer booster stocks.
GP surgeries have been given permission to defer routine health checks for those aged 75 and over, along with other changes to free up capacity to deliver the vaccines, while the army and “clinical students” could also be called on to help deliver jabs.
While it was recognised that the health service was already under pressure, the letter stressed there was a “new national mission” after ministers set the challenge for the NHS to offer boosters to all adults in just 62 days.
It comes as figures showed Covid-19 infections had increased in all four UK nations and remained close to record levels, though the latest rise is not linked to the arrival of the Omicron variant. On Friday there were 50,584 new infections recorded in the previous 24 hours and 143 deaths. It was the second day running of case numbers over 50,000.
About one in 60 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to 27 November, up from one in 65 the previous week, according to estimates from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
The proportion of people in England who were estimated to have coronavirus at the peak of the second wave in early January was one in 50. This led to a surge in hospital admissions and deaths, along with a nationwide lockdown. However, No 10 ruled out making vaccines compulsory, as has happened in Austria and is being considered in Germany.
PA Media contributed to this report