LONDON • Britain's move to delay the second doses of Covid-19 vaccines will help save lives as more people will be able to get some initial protection, Health Minister Matt Hancock has said, defending a policy shift questioned by some scientists.
The abrupt change of tack on Dec 30 meant people due to receive their second vaccine doses had their appointments cancelled in favour of scheduling more initial shots for others.
Some scientists have expressed doubts about altering proven dosing regimes, but Mr Hancock said partial protection for more people would do more good than full protection for a select few.
"The justification is really clear and straightforward, which is that it saves more lives, and ultimately, that is the public health justification," Mr Hancock said on Thursday. "The data shows that there is a significant protection from both the Oxford and the Pfizer jabs after the first dose."
Almost 1.5 million doses have been deployed in Britain. But only 21,000 second doses of the Pfizer shot were given between Dec 29 - when the first people to be vaccinated received their boosters - and Jan 3.
The day after second vaccinations began, officials said they would prioritise giving as many people as possible a first shot to offer some protection over the rollout of booster shots. That means second shots will now be given up to 12 weeks after the first.
National Health Service England CEO Simon Stevens said that 12 days after the first dose, a person might have 90 per cent or more of the benefit of the vaccination. "It means that we're able to offer vaccination to many more people - twice as many people with that Pfizer dosing - over the next several weeks," he said.
While AstraZeneca's shot was tested with different intervals between doses, Pfizer has said there is no data to demonstrate the efficacy of its first dose after 21 days.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that by giving at least some protection to more than 13 million people in priority groups over the next six weeks, it will be possible to consider easing strict lockdown measures from mid-February.
Meanwhile, all passengers arriving in Britain will have to show a negative Covid-19 test result taken within 72 hours of the start of their journey.
Under rules announced yesterday, anyone failing to do so will be fined £500 (S$900). The measures, set out by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, will come into force next week for those arriving in Britain by plane, boat or train.
Travellers arriving from countries not on the government's open travel corridor list have to isolate at home for 10 days, regardless of their test results.
The plan is aimed at stopping new strains of Covid-19 coming into Britain, such as the one identified in South Africa.
"The South African variant is worrying the experts because it may be that the vaccine doesn't respond in the same way," Mr Shapps said yesterday. "If that was the case it would be a tragedy to allow that into the country."
Entry to England will also be banned to those who have travelled from or through any southern African country in the previous 10 days, the government said. The countries include Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
There will be some exemptions from the new rules, including for haulers, children under the age of 11, and for travellers leaving countries without an adequate testing infrastructure in place.