Doctors are scrambling to assemble an army of volunteers to deliver at least 20 million booster jabs over the coming weeks in a bid to protect against Covid and the new omicron variant.
NHS managers said the rapidly expanded vaccine programme announced by the health secretary Sajid Javid will be a “huge challenge” and more “complex” than the initial rollout.
At least eight more omicron variant cases were identified in the UK on Monday, and NHS chief executive warned the coming weeks and months “are going to be difficult for NHS staff and potentially for the whole country”.
Amanda Pritchard said volunteers would be needed immediately to ramp up boosters as the health service “will not be able to do it alone” after 13 million more patients were made eligible on top of those already planned for.
Mr Javid confirmed that vaccine boosters would now be offered to all over-18s, and with a reduced waiting time of three months after a second dose.
“I really hope that, once again, we will see volunteers coming forward to help what is still a vital national effort,” Ms Pritchard said.
It has not yet been confirmed when 18 to 39-year-olds will be able to book their third dose.
Chris Hopson, chief executive for NHS Providers, which represents hospital leaders, said: “The vaccination programme has been a great success so far. While it will be a huge, logistical challenge to expand and accelerate the programme, the NHS has shown repeatedly it can adapt quickly to keep people safe from the virus.”
He said the emergence of the new variant has come at a time when the NHS is heading for an “extremely difficult winter”.
He added: “The government must continue to make decisions based on the scientific evidence, and be ready to put in place tougher restrictions if and when necessary. This will be absolutely critical in the coming weeks.”
The NHS Confederation said its frontline teams “want assurances that the supply of vaccines matches the volume and timing of appointments as they are booked”.
Dr Penelope Toff, public health medicine committee chair for the British Medical Association, said the government would have to provide a plan for how the vaccination expansion would be managed by “an already overloaded health service”.
She added: “Our priority is to keep patients safe, and government must work with clinical leaders to urgently mobilise resources to support this enhanced and accelerated vaccination programme.”
Mr Javid told the House of Commons on Monday: “Covid is with us to stay and we need to learn to live with it, and the best way I think we can do that is with the primary form of defence that we’ve got, which is our vaccination programme.”
But one senior GP in London told The Independent: “The concern is that by opening boosters up to those 18-39 ‘healthy’ people, capacity will be swamped and those most at risk will not get a chance to get in a jab.”
The GP said the current “tech-focused” booking system had already caused difficulties for older patients, adding: “The three-month booster will just dump about three-months’ work on vaccination sites almost overnight.”
One NHS hospital that runs a vaccine site in Sussex had to temporarily stop walk-ins on Monday due to “huge” demand.
The government has introduced other measures to curb the spread of the new variant, and from 4am on Tuesday masks are required in shops and on public transport.
All new arrivals to the UK must take a PCR test by the second day of their arrival and isolate until they have a negative result and all contacts of suspected omicron cases will have to self-isolate regardless of their age or vaccination status.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “The measures taking effect today are proportionate and responsible, and will buy us time in the face of this new variant.
“Based on everything we know, our vaccines and boosters remain our best line of defence, so it is more important than ever that people come forward when eligible to get boosted.
“Not only will today’s steps help us slow down the variant’s spread, but they will help us protect each other and the gains we have all worked so hard for.”