About 10 people are in UK hospitals with COVID-19 caused by Omicron, and Johnson on Monday reported the country’s first COVID-19 death involving the variant.
While the online appointment booking system will not be open to under-30s until Wednesday, Johnson said any adult could show up at a walk-in centre to get a booster starting Monday.
Lines built up at big London vaccination clinics on Monday morning. The line for shots at St Thomas’ Hospital, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, stretched across Westminster Bridge toward Parliament.
The government’s appointment-booking website struggled to keep up with demand. The National Health Service advised people to try accessing the site later in the day or on Tuesday, if they were having problems.
More than 80 per cent of people age 12 and up in Britain have received two vaccine doses, and 40 per cent of adults have had three. Giving the rest boosters by the end of the month will be a huge challenge, requiring almost 1 million doses administered a day. Johnson acknowledged that many routine medical procedures would have to be postponed to meet the goal.
Teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators will help give the jabs at doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies and pop-up vaccination centres.
The UK Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to Omicron, though effectiveness appears to rise to between 70 per cent and 75 per cent after a third vaccine dose.
Johnson’s December 31 target applies to England. The other parts of the UK — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are also expected to speed up their vaccination campaigns.
The British government raised the country’s official coronavirus threat level on Sunday, warning the rapid spread of Omicron “adds additional and rapidly increasing risk to the public and health care services” at a time when COVID-19 is already widespread.
Health authorities said early evidence shows Omicron is spreading much faster than the currently dominant delta variant, with cases doubling every two to three days, and Omicron is likely to replace delta as the dominant strain in the UK within days.
Scientists in South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, say they see signs the variant may cause less severe disease than delta but cautioned it was too soon to be certain.
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, COVID-19 certificates must be shown to enter nightclubs and as of Monday, people were urged to work from home, if possible.
Many scientists say those measures are unlikely to be enough and are calling for tougher ones. But cafes, pubs and other businesses located in city centres fear plummeting commuter numbers will hammer business in the usually busy pre-Christmas period.
Robert Read, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Southampton, said it was still unclear how severe cases of COVID-19 from Omicron would be but “the evidence is that Omicron probably requires much larger amounts of antibody in the blood in order to thwart the virus as much as possible”
“We need to get those third doses into as many adults as we possibly can, just in case this virus turns out to be a raging bull just rather than a pussy cat,” Read told radio station LBC.