Health secretary Matt Hancock has insisted that the Oxford/AstraZeneca COVID vaccine is "safe for all ages", despite updated guidance that people under 30 in the UK shouldn't be given it due to "extremely rare" blood clot side effects.
In a series of interviews on Thursday morning, Hancock said all three vaccines used in the UK are safe, and people should be reassured by the "abundance of caution" displayed by regulators.
His comments come after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said under-30s should be offered the Pfizer or Moderna jabs instead, following an investigation by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) into whether the jab is directly causing rare brain blood clots.
The MHRA said that while the benefits of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine continue to outweigh any risks for "the vast majority of people", there have been an "extremely small" number of blood clots.
Speaking to Sky News on Thursday, the health secretary said: “All three vaccines that are in use in the UK are safe and they’re safe at all ages, but there’s a preference for the under-30s, if they want to have the Pfizer or Moderna jab, then they can.”
Watch: 'More than enough' doses of Pfizer and Moderna for under-30s, says Hancock
Asked if he feared the announcement would lead to a drop-off in the uptake of the vaccine, Hancock said: “There’s no need of that. We’ve seen this incredible uptake of the vaccine in this country.
“What we’ve learned in the last 24 hours is that the rollout of the vaccine is working, we’ve seen that the safety system is working, because the regulators can spot even this extremely rare event – four in a million – and take necessary action to ensure the rollout is as safe as it possible can be.
“And we are seeing that the vaccine is working. It’s breaking the link between cases and deaths.”
He added: “The speed of the vaccination programme is not affected by the decisions yesterday. You can see and be reassured by the fact we’re taking an abundance of caution and we’re making sure we’re rolling this out in the safest way possible.”
He said there were “more than enough” Pfizer and Moderna doses to cover the remaining 18-29 year olds, adding: “Anybody who’s had the jab should continue with the second jab because there’s no evidence of this affect after a second jab and we have more than enough Pfizer and Moderna vaccine to cover all of the remaining 8.5 million people aged between 18-29 if necessary.”
Hancock insisted the UK remained “on track” to hit the target of all adults being offered the jab by the end of July.
He also stressed the effects of long COVID on under-30s, telling BBC Breakfast: “The vaccines are safe, and if you want to have the Pfizer vaccine or Moderna vaccine instead then that is fine.
“COVID is a horrible disease and long COVID affects people in their 20s just as much it seems as any other age group and can have debilitating side effects that essentially ruin your life.”
He added: “The safety system that we have around this vaccine is so sensitive that it can pick up events that are four in a million (the chance of developing a rare brain blood clot) – I’m told this is about the equivalent risk of taking a long-haul flight.”
Professor Jeremy Brown, a member of the JCVI, said that the benefit of vaccinating young people is not just preventing severe disease.
He told Sky News: “It actually will prevent them catching Covid, and if they don’t get COVID then the chance of developing so-called long COVID – the symptoms you get which many people get, about 10%, after they’ve had even a very mild infection – that will prevent that.
“It also allows younger people to visit their relatives who are elderly and more vulnerable to the disease, without the risk of infecting them.
“Lastly, there are social benefits which have been much discussed over the past few days – travel, for example. I think it’s unlikely that people will be allowed to travel out of the country easily unless they have been vaccinated.”
Watch: What is long COVID?