British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new effort to get the country coronavirus booster shots by New Year’s Day as he says the region is facing a “tidal wave” of new coronavirus infections.
In a national broadcast Sunday evening, Johnson said the government will now effort to have residents 18 and older boosted by the end of the month. His original timeline was to have the U.K. up to three vaccine doses by the end of January.
The booster effort is a “national mission,” with offerings of pop-up vaccination centers and daily clinics. Johnson said he anticipates adults whose last shot was at least three months ago to be able to walk-in or book an appointment starting Monday.
Johnson warned that “there is a tidal wave of omicron coming.”
“At this point, our scientists cannot say that omicron is less severe,” Johnson said. “And even if that proved to be true, we already know it is so much more transmissible that a wave of omicron through a population that was not boosted would risk a level of hospitalization that could overwhelm our NHS, and lead, sadly, to very many deaths.”
In order to reach its goal, Johnson said the country will have to match the National Health Service’s best vaccination day on record and beat that number day after day. He warned that some appointment may have to be canceled as resources shift to the booster effort.
“I say directly to those of you on the front lines: I must ask you to make another extraordinary effort now,” Johnson said. “So we can protect you, and your colleagues, and above all, protect your patients from even greater pressures next year.”
Johnson’s address comes the same that the British government raised its official coronavirus threat level to a 4, the second-highest on it’s scale. A level 4 indicates that transmission levels are rising and that the national health care system is at risk.
U.K. scientists believe existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to omicron, though preliminary data show that effectiveness appears to rise to between 70 percent and 75 percent after a third vaccine dose.
The chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said the emergence of the highly transmissible new strain “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread.
The doctors said early evidence shows omicron is spreading much faster than the currently dominant delta variant, and that vaccines offer less protection against it. British officials say omicron is likely to replace delta as the dominant strain in the U.K. within days.
“Data on severity will become clearer over the coming weeks but hospitalizations from omicron are already occurring and these are likely to increase rapidly,” they said.
Concerns about the new variant led Johnson’s Conservative government to reintroduce restrictions that were lifted almost six months ago. Masks must be worn in most indoor settings, vaccine certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and people are being urged to work from home if possible.
Many scientists say that’s unlikely to be enough, however, and are calling for tougher measures.
Scientists in South Africa, where omicron was first identified, say they see signs it may cause less severe disease than delta, but caution that it is too soon to be certain.