Invitations are going out to 37-year-olds to get the coronavirus jab amid fears that the spread of the new Indian variant could jeopardise future plans to ease restrictions.
Text messages are being sent on Tuesday asking people to book an appointment – to be followed on Wednesday by 36-year-olds – as the rollout moves down the age groups.
At the same time, over 50s are having their second jabs brought forward on the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
The moves comes amid continuing concern about the fast-spreading B.1.617.2 variant – first identified in India – with some scientists warning it could lead to a deadly new wave of the virus.
The Times reported that ministers are considering contingency plans for local lockdowns if the strain cannot be brought under control.
NHS England national medical director Stephen Powis said there had already been 930,000 appointments made since the vaccination programme was opened up to 38 and 39-year-olds, and he urged people to come forward when called.
“Getting vaccinated is the most important step we can take to protect ourselves, our families and our communities against Covid 19, so when it is your turn to get your first or second dose please do so,” he said.
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reported that EU ambassadors are set to sign off an a plan on Wednesday to allow British holidaymakers to travel to Europe without having to take a Covid test or quarantine.
In the Commons on Monday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there were now 2,323 confirmed cases of the Indian strain in the UK, with 86 local authority areas recording at least five.
Worst hit have been Bolton and Blackburn with Darwen – where it is now the dominant strain with a total of 483 cases across the two areas – followed by Bedford.
The authorities have responded by deploying “surge” vaccinations and testing in virus hotspots in an attempt to curb the spread of the disease.
However, Mr Hancock expressed frustration that of the 19 hospital cases in Bolton, the majority had not had the vaccine, even though they were eligible.
Despite concerns the Indian variant is even more transmissible than the dominant Kent strain, the latest easing of lockdown restrictions went ahead as planned on Monday across most of England, Scotland and Wales.
It meant pubs and restaurants were able to welcome customers inside while people were able to socialise indoors and to hug family and friends outside their own households.
However ministers have warned the final lifting of lockdown restrictions in England, set for June 21, may have to be delayed if the new variant continues to spread.
Downing Street said on Monday that updates on plans for domestic coronavirus “passports”, announcements on easing social distancing requirements and further guidance on weddings, due later this month, could now be put back.
In Scotland, meanwhile tourism and hospitality bodies have called for urgent talks with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon over the decision to keep Glasgow in Level 3 restrictions over concerns about the spread of the Indian variant in the city.
Hospitality and entertainment businesses in Wales are also pressing the Welsh Government for clarity on when the remaining social distancing rules there can be lifted.
In Northern Ireland a decision is due this week on whether the next stage of easing can go ahead as planned on Monday.
Meanwhile the UK Government has rejected calls for the vaccine to be given to younger age groups in areas where the Indian variant was causing concern.
An analysis by the PA news agency found the Covid-19 rates in the worst hotspots were being driven by a sharp rise in cases among younger age groups.
Bolton, Blackburn with Darwen, and Bedford all have case rates among younger people that are running at a much higher level than those for older age groups.
However, Mr Hancock said they would continue to work down through the age groups, in line with the strategy set out by the (JCVI)as “the best way to save the most lives”.
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