Over-50s will be given their second vaccination after 8 weeks instead of 12 as alarm grows over the Indian Covid variant, Boris Johnson has announced.
The prime minister has rejected calls by local leaders to vaccinate all young adults in hotspots, in favour of speeding up second jabs for older people – across the whole country.
At a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson also warned of “some hard choices” if the variant proved to be significantly more infectious.
“I have to level with you, this new variant could pose a serious disruption to our progress and could make it more difficult to move to step 4 in June,” he said.
However, he said that “at this stage, there is no evidence of increased cases translating into unmanageable pressure on the NHS,” the prime minister said.
“I do not believe that we need, on the present evidence, to delay our roadmap and we will proceed with our plan to move to step 3 on Monday,” he told the press conference.
But, on step 4 – planned for 21 June – he added: “The truth is that at this stage we simply can’t say for certain as things stand.”
Mr Johnson denied he had fatally dragged his heels on closing the border to flights from India, insisting: “At that stage, India was not identified as having a variant of concern.”
Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, warned the Indian variant was poised to replace the Kent variant – which caused the devastating Covid surge after Christmas.
“We expect that, overtime, this variant will overtake and come to dominate in the UK,” he said.
He defended the decision not to bend the rules to vaccinate younger adults in hotspots – as demanded by local leaders in Lancashire and by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester mayor.
This would lead to “a net disadvantage”, he argued, because people who have just reached adulthood are at far less risk of serious illness or death.
“The sensible thing to do is to prioritise the vaccines to the people most at risk,” Professor Whitty said.
Mr Johnson also appeared to dash hopes that many more countries will be added to the quarantine-free ’green list’ of countries for overseas travel, in the weeks to come.
“I don’t expect that we will be adding to it very rapidly,” he warned.