LONDON- Britain's health minister Sajid Javid said on Sunday he expected to receive advice imminently on whether the government can broaden a booster shot programme to try to weaken the impact of the newly identified Omicron coronavirus variant.
The government announced new measures on Saturday to try to slow the spread of the variant, toughening rules for people arriving into Britain and ordering the use of face masks in retail settings and on transport in England.
"The other thing that still remains hugely important, but I think it's fair to say now more important than it was before, is our vaccination programme," Javid told Sky News.
"That is why I have also asked our expert advisers on vaccines called JCVI (the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) to give me very quick advice on broadening, boosting our booster programme, and I expect to get that advice imminently."
Earlier this month, Britain expanded eligibility for booster jabs to people in their 40s and also said children aged 16 and 17 would be able to receive a second dose following guidance from the JCVI.
Scotland, where the government sets its own rules for health, already requires people to wear face coverings and work from home if possible, but its first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told the BBC's Andrew Marr show she would also bring in new rules for arrivals.
"I think we need to be open minded to doing anything required to keep the population safe right now," she told the BBC's Andrew Marr show.
The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" last week by the World Health Organization, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year COVID-19 pandemic.
Britain has confirmed two cases of the new variant, and Javid said the new measures were needed to buy time for experts to try to understand more about Omicron, which may, or may not, make vaccines less effective.
Paul Burton, chief medical officer at Moderna, said if a new vaccine was needed to tackle the variant, "I think that's going to be early 2022 before that’s really going to be available in large quantities".
Javid repeated that it was not as yet clear whether vaccines were less effective against the variant.
"The point is the vaccines are still going to give you more protection than otherwise," he said. "That is why the booster programme is so important."
(Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by Louise Heavens, Mark Heinrich and Raissa Kasolowsky) ((firstname.lastname@example.org; 07979746994; Reuters Messaging: email@example.com))