Health Secretary Matt Hancock has predicted England’s latest national lockdown will be the last full shutdown of the COVID crisis – but suggested Britons might need to be re-vaccinated every six to 12 months.
The government is aiming to offer a first dose of a COVID vaccine to nearly 14 million of the most vulnerable people over the next five-and-a-half weeks, during a period when England will continue with its third national lockdown.
However, appearing before the House of Commons health committee on Thursday, Mr Hancock admitted there was uncertainty over how long immunity from vaccines would last.
“I anticipate we will probably need to revaccinate because we don’t know the longevity of the protection from these vaccines,” he told MPs.
“We don’t know how frequently it will be, but it might need to be every six months, it might need to be every year.”
Mr Hancock also predicted that vaccines and coronavirus testing would still be part of life during 2022.
“There is absolutely no doubt that vaccines and testing will still be a feature next year,” he added.
“We will need both the surveillance testing to be able to understand where the virus is and we will need testing for people who have symptoms, in the same way that you get tested for all sorts of other things.”
But, asked if he thought the current lockdown in England, which began on Monday night, would be the last one, Mr Hancock replied: “I do, yes.”
By 15 February, the government is aiming to offer a vaccine to the top four priority groups, as decided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
These include older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
Mr Hancock told MPs that he hoped frontline health workers would be offered a vaccine even “sooner” than the middle of next month.
If a COVID-19 vaccine requires adjustments to fight new variants of the virus, Mr Hancock said it may not need to go through the usual full trials process that a new vaccine needs.
“As with the flu vaccine each year, for a type of vaccine that has been clinically trialled and approved, if you make small adjustments to it, then it may not need the full year-long trials process that a new vaccine needs,” he said at the committee hearing.
“The way I have described it, is if you are lucky to have Range Rover and you get a new wing mirror stuck on it, it’s still a Range Rover and should be classified as such.”