THERE is “no plan” for the UK Government to issue Britons with so-called “vaccine passports,” Nadhim Zahawi, the UK Government’s Vaccine Minister, has insisted as he suggested annual vaccines or a “booster in the autumn” could be required to combat Covid-19 variants.
However, he pointed out that people inoculated against coronavirus would be able to ask their GP for written proof of their vaccine status if it were needed for travel.
Downing Street has been adamant that it does not plan to issue vaccine passports to allow people to go on holiday once they have had both doses of a vaccine.
But with countries such as Greece stating that they will waive quarantine requirements for those who have been jagged, ministers are facilitating a way in which UK residents with protection can travel once the lockdown is over.
Asked if the Government was considering issuing immunity passports, Mr Zahawi declared: “No, we’re not.”
He told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme: “One, we don’t know the impact of the vaccines on transmission. Two, it would be discriminatory and the right thing to do is to make sure that people come forward to be vaccinated because they want to rather than it be made in some way mandatory through a passport.
“If other countries obviously require some form of proof, then you can ask your GP because your GP will hold your records and that will then be able to be used as your proof you’ve had the vaccine. But we are not planning to have a passport in the UK,” he added.
Ed Miliband for Labour suggested vaccine passports “may be necessary” but raised questions over how they would be used.
“I am saying we should be open to this but there are complications to do this vaccine passport…Is it just for international travel? Is it for as you go about your business in your society?” the former party leader queried.
During his Sunday broadcast interviews, Mr Zahawi looked to allay fears about the more infectious South African variant of coronavirus – which is being hunted in England by door-to-door testing teams – after a study found the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offered only limited protection against mild disease caused by the mutation.
The study into the E484K mutation involved some 2,000 people, most of whom were young and healthy, meaning further data is required.
The Government vaccine tsar pointed out the research showed the Oxford jab “does protect against severe disease”.
But as the virus continues to adapt against the current vaccines on offer, Mr Zahawi suggested an annual rollout of booster jabs was likely to be required.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “We see very much probably an annual or booster in the autumn and then an annual[jag], in the way we do with flu vaccinations where you look at what variant of virus is spreading around the world, rapidly produce a variant of vaccine and then begin to vaccinate and protect the nation.”
The minister also disclosed that nearly 1,000 vaccines a minute were provided in an hour on Saturday morning as the Government strives to meet its target of giving all over-70s and frontline healthcare workers their first dose by February 15.
On the research on the South African variant, caution was urged by Professor Robin Shattock, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research at Imperial College London.
He explained: “It’s a very small study with just over 2,000 people and it’s not published so we can only judge it from the press release and press coverage. But it is concerning to some extent that we’re seeing that it’s not effective against mild or moderate disease.”
Prof Shattock said the study participants had a mean age of around 31 and it was not yet clear whether they had had both doses.
“Oxford, as well as other groups, are already working on vaccines against these variants…We will need to keep updating the vaccines to keep ahead of the virus.”
The expert later added: “Everybody should remember that having a vaccine is going to prevent you ending up in hospital with these current strains.
“We also need to be cautious about still, even though you will get some protection from a single dose, behaving as if you don’t, in order to maximise your chances of getting total protection when you get that second dose and minimise the chances of being able to transmit it on if you get one of these variant strains.”
Professor Sarah Gilbert, lead researcher on the Oxford vaccine, noted how the current vaccines “have a reduction in efficacy against some of the variant viruses” but added: “What that is looking like is that we may not be reducing the total number of cases but there’s still protection in that case against deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease.”
However, the expert pointed out how she and her team were working on having an adapted version of the Oxford jab that could tackle the South Africa mutation “available for the autumn”.
Prof Gilbert said that even if the vaccine proved less effective against emerging variants, the protection afforded would still take the pressure off the NHS.
“Maybe we won’t be reducing the number of cases as much, but we still won’t be seeing the deaths, hospitalisations and severe disease. That’s really important for healthcare systems, even if we are having mild and asymptomatic infections, to prevent people going into hospital with Covid would have a major effect,” she added.