A Conservative council leader has strongly hinted that the UK government will give permission imminently for the “surge vaccination” of all adults in areas hit by outbreaks of the Covid-19 variant first identified in India.
Boris Johnson is due to hold a press conference later on Friday in which he is expected to outline how the government will combat a sharp rise in infections linked to the B.1.617.2 variant.
David Greenhalgh, the leader of Bolton council in north-west England, is one of a number of local leaders who had asked ministers to let them vaccinate all over-16s in areas where the virus is spreading rapidly.
Greenhalgh said he had held “very, very constructive” talks with the health secretary, Matt Hancock, earlier on Friday.
He said: “This is an issue of capacity but we have had very, very constructive talks and certainly all the soundings are that they are looking to progress that as soon as possible.”
Bolton has the highest infection rate in the UK – seven times higher than the UK average – after a sharp rise in cases linked to B.1.617.2.
Greenhalgh said the vast majority of the cases were of people in their teens, 20s and 30s, most of whom had not been vaccinated against Covid-19. The ability to vaccinate them more quickly would offer a “total transformation” of how the disease was spreading, he said, adding that the programme would be targeted in parts of the town with the highest infection rate.
The government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) were both understood to have provided advice to ministers on whether they recommend abandoning the age priority list for vaccines in Covid hotspots.
Dominic Harrison, the director of public health for Blackburn with Darwen council, said on Friday he was “furious” that local health officials had not been allowed to order surge vaccinations to combat the outbreak.
He said Blackburn needed to “at least double” its daily vaccination rate to get on top of the rise in cases, which is the second highest in the UK behind Bolton, but said the government was “tying one hand behind our backs”.
He said: “It’s extremely frustrating. Matt Hancock said [on Thursday night] that the government was doing everything it can to take action on the Indian variants, but actually Blackburn with Darwen isn’t being allowed to do everything we can because that would include surge vaccination.”
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, said on Friday that the government would “flex” its vaccine rollout to combat emerging variants, but it was not clear whether this was limited to accelerating the vaccination of eligible age groups.
Public health officials, local MPs and the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, have asked the government to offer vaccinations to all people over 16 in hotspot areas in an attempt to curb infections.
Zahawi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the government had identified 1,400 cases linked to the B.1.617.2 variant and that 14,000 of their close contacts had been traced. He said more jabs would be sent to Bolton.
He later said “we will take nothing off the table” when asked if local lockdowns were being considered by officials in areas with a surge of the variant first identified in India.
Announcing further local lockdowns would be an extraordinary step as England takes its next step out of restrictions on Monday, when customers will be allowed inside bars, pubs and restaurants for the first time in months.
Harrison said it would be foolish to impose further local lockdowns without first boosting vaccination rates in areas of high transmission: “What we need over the next three to four weeks is as much vaccine as we can get from the national supply system to shut down the continued spread of the variant.
“If we don’t do it, the variant is going to spread across the UK [and] it’s going to risk a surge of a much bigger scale than we’re seeing at the moment.
Sakthi Karunanithi, Lancashire’s director of public health, said he was also angry that badly hit areas were not being allowed greater freedom to direct the vaccine rollout.
“I share Dom’s fury,” he told BBC Radio Lancashire on Friday morning.
Karunanithi said the region of 1.5 million people may only be “three or four weeks” away from further widespread outbreaks of B.1.617.2, as in Blackburn with Darwen, where the infection rate is five times the UK average.
He added: “At this point in time I’m having to painfully accept that we can’t move faster with the vaccines in Lancashire but we will continue to [ask the government] for us to move faster.”
Meanwhile, hopes remained high among politicians and officials in Bolton on Friday morning that the government would allow them the flexibility to start vaccinating all adults in the three worst affected wards.
But a spokesperson for NHS Bolton clinical commissioning group stressed that, for now, it can only offer jabs to those aged 38 and older, or in one of the vulnerable groups. They said vaccine uptake had been very high since news broke that the Indian variant was circulating in three wards in the BL3 area of Bolton, which are relatively deprived neighbourhoods with large numbers of residents living in multi-generational households.
“We’ve had our vaccine bus parked in front of the Essa academy, a school in BL3, all week and have had a fantastic response. Yesterday was our best day and we vaccinated over 340 people. It was Eid, so we were over the moon to see that people came out in their droves to queue in the rain,” the spokesperson said.
It is understood local authorities are planning to ask pupils across large parts of north-west England, including Greater Manchester and most of Lancashire, to continue wearing face masks in schools from Monday, when masks will no longer be mandatory under government guidelines.
Burnham urged ministers to allow younger people to be vaccinated much more quickly in areas with high case rates: “That is what is needed if we are to make the most decisive and effective intervention into this situation that we can right now.”