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Concerns raised over extension of vaccine rollout to younger age groups to tackle Indian variant

A government minister has said he did not approve of moves to break from government guidelines on the rollout of vaccines in areas where the Indian variant has been found – as London’s mayor called for more flexibility.

Asked whether he approved of authorities in Bolton vaccinating “anyone who wants it”, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Sky News: “No, I think the government has very clear guidelines in terms of the ordered way in which we roll out the vaccine.”

But it came as Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said he had asked Health Secretary Matt Hancock to give city authorities “the flexibility to give younger people the vaccine, in those parts of London who are concerned about this strain”.

Handout photo of a team of St John Ambulance vaccination volunteers at the ESSA Academy site in Bolton, Greater Manchester. The Army is to be deployed in Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen to help mass testing efforts in order to combat the spread of the Indian variant. Picture date: Saturday May 15, 2021.
Image: St John Ambulance vaccination volunteers at the ESSA Academy site in Bolton, Greater Manchester

Over the weekend, Bolton distributed more than 6,200 doses of vaccine as it struggled to combat an upsurge in cases, much of which have been blamed on the Indian variant.

While just over 1,300 cases of the variant – also called B.1.617 – have been found in the country so far, Mr Hancock said on Sunday it was “becoming the dominant strain in some parts of the country” such as Bolton and Blackburn.

It prompted authorities in Bolton to encourage all adults to attend vaccination centres to get the jab – despite government guidance recommending everyone over the age of 38 comes forward to get their inoculation, with older and more vulnerable groups having been invited already.

As thousands rushed to take advantage of the offer in Bolton, there were reports that some of those who had the jab were under 18.

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Indian variant ‘could spread like wildfire’

Mr Kwarteng said government guidelines had “been working and [it] has been a very effective rollout, and we would suggest that people should do it in the correct order, in the right way.”

Asked whether ministers should pressure local authorities not to break from the guidelines, Mr Kwarteng said: “I don’t know the actual details of what is going on in Bolton but we’ve got very firm guidelines and we want people to follow those.”

Referring to Bolton, he added: “I can see what they are trying to do… but what I’ve said is that there is a really good way that we’ve managed to roll out the vaccine and we would urge people to follow the guidelines that we’ve set out and the method that we’ve used.”

Mr Khan said he disagreed with the government, saying he thought a more “nimble” approach was necessary. London is another area where the Indian variant has been found.

Bolton has become a hotspot for the Indian variant
Image: Bolton has become a hotspot for the Indian variant

He told Sky News: “In those parts of the country where there are pockets where people have this Indian variant… we should be nimble and we should be giving the vaccine to younger people in those areas. Why? Because the early evidence is if you receive the vaccine, you are less likely to catch this variant, the spread is less serious but also the consequences should you catch it are much less serious as well.

“I’ve asked both Matt Hancock and Nadhim Zahawi, the various ministers, on Friday to give us the flexibility to give younger people the vaccine, in those parts of London that are concerned about this strain.”

Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy, who was speaking to Sky News from her constituency in Wigan – less than 10 miles from Bolton – also called on the government to do more listening.

She said: “The biggest thing for us here is that the government starts to listen to us locally.

“When you’ve got local Tory councils saying, ‘look, give us some discretion, give us some leeway to be able to administer the vaccine to as many people as possible as quickly as possible’. I think the government does need to start listening.”

On Sunday, Mr Hancock said in Bolton, where a number of people have ended up in hospitals with the Indian variant, the “vast majority” of those patients had been eligible for a COVID jab but had not yet had one.

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What do we know about Indian variant?

He likened the current situation facing the country to “a race between the vaccination programme and the virus”, with the Indian variant having “given the virus some extra legs in that race”.

Mr Hancock told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday show he did not rule out different restrictions in parts of the country where infections were not falling as quickly as others.

Dr Helen Wall, who is leading the vaccination effort in Bolton, told BBC Breakfast that, over the weekend, long queues of people were seen waiting for vaccines.

She said before the weekend there were around 10,000 people in the area in the highest priority groups who were yet to be vaccinated.

“We’re seeing people coming forward that clearly had the option to have the jab for some time – older people, disabled people – and they’ve chosen to come forward now,” she said.

But it was reported in The Times that teenagers were among those receiving their jabs after local councillors and the local health authorities urged all adults to attend vaccination centres, leading to long queues.

Social media posts over the weekend – including those from the chair of Bolton NHS Foundation Trust, Professor Donna Hall – encouraged all adults to get vaccinations.

Sky’s Frazer Maude, reporting from Bolton on Monday, said authorities had told him they were asking everyone who was “eligible” to come to a vaccination centre for their jab.

He said: “There are still queues here today – a mixture of ethnicities and a mixture of age groups. The confusion may have arisen from a tweet from one member of the council cabinet, who tweeted out last week that ‘anyone with a Bolton postcode registered with a GP can visit the vaccine bus, the team will find a reason to vaccinate you’.

“Talking to Dr Helen Wall yesterday… she said everyone who is being vaccinated here is eligible for the jab. There are some younger people here being vaccinated, that is very much true, but what she explained that what a lot of young people don’t realise is that they will be eligible for the jab and that it’s worth coming down here, whatever age you are, to check your eligibility. If you are eligible, you will then be given the jab.

“It’s about a 20 minute wait to get through that system, to find out if you are eligible, but they say because of that they are operating within the government guidelines.”

One of the members of the JCVI, Adam Finn, told Sky News there were good reasons why the government’s recommendations were in place.

He said he understood why Mr Khan may want more flexibility to vaccinate younger age groups, but added: “The two issues with that are that, first of all, we’re really not quite sure how well the vaccines will interrupt transmission, particularly for this new variant.

“We do know they protect people against getting sick and that’s something we can hold on to and use as a strategy.

“The other thing is, that after a first dose of these vaccines, it does take two-three weeks at least before that protection begins to emerge, so what you do now is not really going to have much influence over what happens over the next couple of weeks.

“So for those two reasons we do need to think strategically about what we do with the vaccine doses.”