A nurse administers the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in Salisbury Cathedral.

UK vaccine adviser says delay of Covid second dose will save lives

A representative of the UK’s vaccine advisory committee has defended its decision to delay giving people a second dose, saying it will “save many lives”, as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, warned lifting restrictions was “a long, long way off”.

Prof Anthony Harnden, of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said the evidence was still in favour of delaying the dose, after a small Israeli study on people over the age of 60 suggested a first dose gave just 33% protection from coronavirus.

The JCVI has suggested doses should be given 12 weeks apart in order to give the maximum number of people some protection while supplies are limited. Pfizer, which manufactures one of the vaccines being administered in the UK and is also the provider of vaccines in Israel, has said it has tested its vaccine’s full efficacy only when the two doses were given up to 21 days apart.

Meanwhile, ministers are preparing to announce tough new border measures to stop new variants of coronavirus from abroad scuppering the advances of the UK’s vaccination programme. Reports suggest they may stop short of requiring all travellers to quarantine in government facilities.

Speaking on BBC One’s Andrew Marr show, Israel’s health minister, Yuli Edelstein, said there had been debates within his ministry about delaying the second dose. “I’ll be very honest, we had debates about it in the ministry. And we decided to follow the instructions given by Pfizer. There were different opinions on that in Israel too. But as we have very little information at that stage … So we decided to stick to the instructions we get from Pfizer.

“We are just at the beginning of the [vaccination] campaign. We do see cases of people that after getting the first dose still get sick with the coronavirus. At the same time there are some encouraging signs of less severe diseases, less people hospitalised after the first dose, so at this stage it’s very difficult to say. We really hope that we will have better information in the near future.”

Edelstein said his country would look to vaccinate “very high numbers, probably to 80%,” before the country would consider it had herd immunity and restrictions would be lifted.

Harnden, the deputy chair of the JCVI, said the committee was examining the Israeli data in detail but the picture was not definitive.

Speaking to Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Harnden said it had concluded in the case of the Pfizer vaccine that there was “no real evidence that a second dose gave you substantially longer and better protection … We do believe you should have a second dose but we do believe that that can be delayed.”

He said of the Oxford vaccine that “it may be that the longer you leave the second dose, the better protection you have”.

He added: “The Israeli data is preliminary data. It does involve PCR testing, which is of course asymptomatic cases as well as symptomatic cases. They have not followed up for more than three weeks and the statistical methods they used are not clear.”

Harnden said the committee still believed a delayed second dose would “save many lives nationally”, saying the UK would begin to see a decline in hospital admissions and deaths a few weeks after the first four priority groups had been offered their first dose of the vaccine.

Hancock reiterated that there was “a high degree of confidence” that delaying the second dose would save more lives. “In a situation where there is a limited supply … you want to get as many people to have as much protection as possible as quickly as possible.”

Three-quarters of all those over 80 in the UK have been vaccinated, the health secretary announced.

He told Ridge the government was a “long, long, long way” from being able to lift coronavirus lockdown restrictions in England, and he refused to commit to schoolchildren being back in class by Easter. “We have got to look at the data, we have got to look at the impact of the vaccination programme,” he said.

The government is expecting to meet to discuss new border measures on Monday, as fears grow about the spread of new variants. Hancock said there were 77 known cases of the South African variant in the UK, all linked to travel, and nine cases linked to one of the Brazilian variants.

“The new variant I really worry about is the one that is out there that hasn’t been spotted,” he told Sky News. “There’s probably those elsewhere that simply haven’t been picked up because the country doesn’t have that genomic sequencing service.”

Lisa Nandy, the shadow foreign secretary, said Labour had been “pushing the government to take tougher measures at the border since last spring”.

She said: “Scientists tell us that there are a number of countries where these strains are emerging that just simply do not have the capacity to map what is happening. So it’s not just countries who have identified the strains of the virus we ought to be careful about, actually what we’re likely to be seeing, even if we haven’t identified it, is strains emerging all over the world.

“On Monday we’ve got this delayed announcement yet again delayed. We would fully expect the government to bring in tougher quarantine measures, we would expect them to roll out a proper testing strategy and we would expect them as well to start checking up on the people who are quarantining.”