It is by now fairly well known that the most serious cases of Covid-19 in the UK, and other rich countries, are increasingly concentrated among unvaccinated people. Between January and September, there were 34,474 deaths from Covid in England of unvaccinated people aged 10 or over, compared with 4,308 deaths of those who had received two vaccine doses (an alternative set of figures, also published by the Office for National Statistics and based on a different dataset, gives the totals of 40,966 unvaccinated deaths, compared with 5,104 double-vaccinated).
The UK Health Security Agency has been careful to stress that the data “do not show causal links between vaccines and risks of mortality”. Other differences between vaccinated and unvaccinated groups could contribute to their differing death rates. But the contrast is dramatic, as are data relating to hospitalisation, with one recent analysis showing that of 40,000 Covid patients hospitalised, 84% were unvaccinated and just 3% double-vaccinated.
Already, the relatively low take-up of vaccines among some groups was a cause for concern, not least among doctors who have described their distress when confronted by dying people who have deliberately avoided vaccines. Among 12- to 15-year-old children, the vaccination rate is 39.1% (compared with 67.4% of adults who have had at least one dose, although the risk posed to children by Covid-19 is lower). But concerns associated with the arrival of the Omicron variant, against which the current vaccines may be less effective, make the issue of vaccine take-up more urgent – and the gaps more alarming.
At a press conference led by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, it was announced on Monday that children aged 12 to 15 would now be eligible to receive second doses 12 weeks after their initial jab. A decision on whether to vaccinate younger children is likely to be made before Christmas (in the US, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has been approved for those aged five to 11). All adults will be offered boosters, where a fortnight ago these were mostly reserved for over-40s. Those with suppressed immune systems are also eligible for an additional (fourth) booster jab. Advice to pregnant women to get vaccinated has been belatedly strengthened.
The purpose, as Prof Van-Tam and others have explained, is to try to “get ahead” of the mutating virus, and behave according to precautionary principles (around a dozen Omicron cases have been detected in the UK so far, with hundreds more expected). New rules about mask-wearing, including in secondary schools, are sensible in this context. Ventilation has been overlooked in the past and requires further attention.
It is possible that the Omicron variant may turn out to be no more dangerous than the Delta variant. But ministers should seize this moment and use it to improve their vaccine messaging, starting with the prime minister himself. With vaccines now compulsory for care home workers, and causing problems where staff have left jobs rather than be jabbed, it is incumbent on senior politicians to set an example, allying themselves with scientists instead of the libertarians on their backbenches. They must also do more to combat vaccine misinformation online, both by demanding in public that Facebook and other platforms clamp down on the dangerous anti-vaxx propaganda that they allow to spread unchecked, but also by countering the lies with their own words and actions.
The pandemic is not over. Once again, the level of danger may be on the rise. Along with delivering boosters, boosting the vaccination rate must now be the government’s domestic priority – while internationally, it should do everything it can to promote efforts to vaccinate the world.