Millions of Brits are being invited to get an autumn Covid booster jab from today amid spiralling virus hospitalisations.
Around 20million people in England are eligible for the booster this year, including the over-65s, pregnant women and people with underlying health conditions.
They have been urged to book their vaccination appointment — during which they will also be offered a flu jab — through the NHS website, app or by calling 119.
Officials brought forward the rollout by an entire month due to the spread of the highly-mutated Pirola Covid variant, which experts fear could trigger a spike in infections and hospitalisations.
Latest data shows that the number of infected Brits admitted to hospital in England is at a four-month high, with the toll doubling in the space of a month.
Covid and flu vaccines will only be offered to over-65s this winter, health chiefs confirmed today. In a bid to ‘go back to normal’, invites won’t be dished out to millions aged 50-64 who were eligible during the pandemic
It comes as Covid hospitalisations have soared to a four-month high in England. Some 3,287 infected people were admitted in the week to September 8, which is the highest figure logged since the week to April 28 (3,485). The toll has also nearly doubled in a month, compared to the 1,804 in NHS beds with Covid in the week to August 4
Health chiefs say all of those eligible will be offered a Covid booster by the end of October in response to the ‘risk of the new variant’.
The autumn rollout began last week, with care home residents and housebound people the first to get top-up Covid and flu jabs.
Hundreds of thousands of those included in the rollout will begin receiving invitations from the health service this week, encouraging them to come forward.
As well as care home residents and housebound people, the over-65s, frontline health and social care workers and carers are also eligible for Covid and flu vaccines.
People aged 6 months to 64 years in a clinical risk group will also be invited.
This group includes people with a chronic respiratory, heart, kidney or liver disease, as well as those with diabetes, pregnant women and those who are morbidly obese.
GP surgeries and other local NHS services are also contacting people to offer the vaccines.
The 30million Brits eligible for a flu jab can book a slot with their local pharmacy. Those getting a Covid vaccine will also be offered a flu shot during that appointment.
Around 5,000 sites — the most ever — will be dishing out vaccines in a bid to make it as ‘easy and convenient as possible’ for people to get protected.
Steve Russell, NHS director for vaccinations and screening, said: ‘Vaccines are our best protection against flu and Covid, and I strongly encourage all eligible people to come forward for their lifesaving winter vaccines as soon as they can.
‘The new Covid variant presents a new risk, but NHS staff are rising to the challenge once more to do all they can to protect the public.’
The NHS says winter and flu vaccines provide vital protection to those eligible and their families over winter.
The jab protects against severe illness, hospitalisation and death due to the virus. Those who got a vaccine last autumn were 53 per cent less likely to be admitted in the month after being jabbed, compared to those who didn’t get a booster.
It is vital for people to get a booster dose, even if they have had a Covid vaccine or been infected previously, as the immunity these provide fades over time.
Health Minister Maria Caulfield said: ‘As we enter the autumn months, it’s vital that the most vulnerable groups receive flu and Covid vaccines to strengthen their immunity and reduce pressure on the NHS.
‘We’re investing an additional £200million in the NHS to support it during its busiest period. We can all do our bit to help ease pressures, so I encourage anyone eligible to get their vaccines booked as soon as they are called, to ensure we all head into winter with the best protection.’
The East of England had the largest number of cases thanks to a massive care home outbreak of 28 cases in Norfolk in late August
Globally, more than 100 cases of Pirola have been detected including in Denmark, South Africa and the US
While virologists have warned it is too early to reliably pinpoint BA.2.86 specific symptoms, its ancestor BA.2 had some tell-tale signs. Experts aren’t yet certain, however if it behaves like similar Omicron subvariants, the signs to watch out for include a runny nose, sore throat and fatigue
Dr Mary Ramsay, Head of Immunisation at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: ‘We are already seeing a slow rise in cases of Covid, as well as increases in hospitalisations, particularly among the over 75s.
‘Older people and those in clinical risk groups remain at higher risk of severe illness, so it’s important all those eligible come forward when offered and get protected against flu and Covid.’
It comes as Covid hospitalisations have soared to a four-month high in England.
Some 3,287 infected people were admitted in the week to September 8, which is the highest figure logged since the week to April 28 (3,485).
The toll has also nearly doubled in a month, compared to the 1,804 in NHS beds with Covid in the week to August 4.
Pirola has been detected in the UK, US, Israel, Denmark, South Africa , Portugal, Sweden, France, Canada, Thailand and Switzerland. Health experts fear it is rapidly spreading worldwide undetected
It is unclear how many Brits are infected with the virus, as the nation is no longer testing en masse like they were earlier in the pandemic — with free community mass testing being scrapped in May 2022.
However, health chiefs last week estimated that the Pirola variant, scientifically known as BA.2.86, was behind 2.7 per cent of cases in the week to August 27.
A total of 42 cases had been detected in the UK by September 11, up from 36 one week earlier.
The East of England has logged the largest number of cases due to a massive care home outbreak of 28 cases in Norfolk in late August.
Excluding this singular event, London was the UK’s Pirola hotspot, logging six cases, followed by Scotland, which has reported five.
Of England’s 37 cases, spotted as of September 11, seven had been hospitalised, while two were detected among A&E patients. No deaths have been recorded among those infected.
No Pirola cases have been detected in Wales and Northern Ireland.
Globally more than 100 cases of Pirola have been detected including in Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Japan, Portugal, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden and the US.
Dr Renu Bindra, UKHSA incident director, said that while Pirola has a ‘significant number of mutations’ compared with other variants in circulation, the data so far is ‘too limited to draw firm conclusions’ about the impact this will have.
She added: ‘It is clear that there is some degree of widespread community transmission, both in the UK and globally, and we are working to ascertain the full extent of this.
‘In the meantime, it remains vital that all those eligible come forward to receive their autumn vaccine as soon as it is offered to them.’