A new COVID-19 variant, named BA.2.86, has emerged in several countries and is sparking concerns in the UK. The variant contains a high number of mutations and has appeared in individuals without travel history, indicating it is transmitting in communities.
In response, the UK government has announced it will expand the autumn COVID-19 booster program by one month, starting it on September 11. However, the booster shots will only be available to limited groups including care home residents, the clinically vulnerable, those aged 65 and over, health and social care staff, and carers.
The limited scope of the booster program is drawing criticism. Joan Twelves of the COVID Action campaign states, “Why are booster jabs not being offered to everyone who wants one? It’s been years since the majority of the population were offered vaccination.” She argues that relying on herd immunity is “bad science” and calls for vaccine centres to be reopened and a publicity campaign launched.
Beyond boosters, Twelves and COVID Action argue more mitigation measures are needed to curb community transmission and prevent long COVID and further NHS strain. They advocate for free vaccinations for all, restored free testing, mandatory masking in healthcare settings and crowded public spaces, and improved ventilation in schools and public buildings.
The concerns come as schools and colleges prepare to reopen, sparking fears of increased viral spread. COVID Action argues now is the time for the government to change course and implement measures to drive down transmission as the NHS faces a difficult winter ahead. The limited booster program expansion suggests the government remains reluctant to acknowledge the continued threat of the pandemic.