Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain announced a plan on Tuesday to offer all those age 50 and older a booster vaccine as part of a winter coronavirus strategy — plunging Britain into a growing debate over whether lower-income countries should get shots first.
The prime minister is taking the step to try to prevent a new surge in cases from overwhelming the National Health Service, and to avoid another lockdown in a country wearied by the pandemic and earlier measures that included some of the strictest restrictions in the world.
The additional vaccine doses will start being offered next week to older members of that group, health workers and those with underlying health conditions across Britain, with the aim of giving all those over 50 a booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, regardless of which vaccine an individual received previously, by the end of the year. Most people in Britain have received the two-shot vaccines of either the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines. The decision follows an announcement on Monday that one vaccine shot will be offered to healthy children aged 12 to 15.
Speaking at a Downing Street media conference, Mr. Johnson hailed the vaccination campaign for producing, he said, “one of the most free societies and one of the most open economies in Europe.”
However the decision puts Britain among a growing group of countries that are offering booster shots to their own citizens before many people in large parts of the world have received even one dose. The World Health Organization has warned that offering booster shots in wealthy countries could divert vaccines from poorer countries that need doses, and last week called on governments not to administer boosters for healthy patients until at least the end of the year.
“I’m a bit upset, frankly, to hear that Britain is going into boosters, when this is simply going to take really precious vaccine away from people in other parts of the world who can’t get their basic two doses, and therefore going to be at risk of death,” David Nabarro, a special envoy on Covid for the World Health Organization, told Times Radio.
Despite the flurry of booster programs in wealthier nations, the science of whether they are needed by most healthy people is not yet clear.
Some studies suggest that the protection that the vaccines provide against infection and mild disease may be waning. But they remain highly effective at preventing the worst outcomes, including severe disease and death, and scientists have said that a blanket recommendation for boosters is premature.
Experts generally agree, however, that a third shot is warranted for people with compromised immune systems, who may not have mounted a strong immune response to the initial doses. W.H.O. officials are not opposed to additional doses for the immunocompromised, and several countries, including the United States, are now offering additional shots to this vulnerable group. Britain has released official advice to offer extra shots to the group as well.
In the United States, there is a roiling debate over the use of boosters for most people. The Biden administration announced a proposal in August to begin administering vaccine boosters eight months after people had received second shots, but some scientists have opposed that, saying the vaccines already protect many people against severe illness and hospitalization.
Britain is now averaging about 30,000 new coronavirus cases and about 1,000 hospital admissions each day, according to government data. And while that is significantly fewer than the 100,000 cases predicted by some experts, government officials know that another surge is possible as children return to school and the weather worsens through the fall and winter.
Officials in Britain are looking to avoid the type of restrictions that for months blocked people from seeing family and friends even in most outdoor settings, while also preventing another catastrophic winter surge like the one that pummeled the country last year.
Although the government has not ruled out another lockdown completely, it presented that as a last resort that would be considered only if England faces a new and highly transmissible variant.
“When you’ve got a large proportion of the country, as we have now, with immunity, then smaller changes can make a bigger difference and give us the confidence that we don’t need to go back to the lockdowns of the past,” Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson also said that the government was preparing a “plan B” as a contingency in the event that cases rise significantly, as some experts fear they will in the winter months. This includes reintroducing a requirement to wear face coverings in indoor spaces and on public transportation, and advising people to work from home when possible.
On Sunday the government said it would not proceed with a vaccine passport plan that would have forced nightclubs and some other venues in England to check the status of those trying to enter. But it has kept open the option of reviving the strategy should the situation deteriorate.