“The booster programme is probably the most important piece of the jigsaw yet to fall into place so we can actually transition this pandemic, this virus, to endemic status,” he told MPs on Monday.
Once a medical trial which was experimenting with seven different booster vaccines, known as Cov-Boost, reported back, the Joint Council on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) could make its recommendation on how to roll out third jabs, Mr Zahawi said.
“We are ready to go as soon as Cov-Boost, which is imminent to report … we will be able to operationalise a massive booster programme.
“As ever, whatever the clinical decision from the JCVI, the NHS will be ready. We will proceed with the same sense of urgency we have had at every point in this campaign.”
Mr Zahawi was responding to a question from the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who urged the government to not wait for formal approval from the scientific experts but begin a new round of booster vaccinations already.
“[The minister] will know that Israel shows that even a good vaccination programme does not stop the Delta variant from driving up hospitalisations, but a booster programme brings down those hospitalisations in as little as two weeks,” Mr Hunt, now a backbencher, said.
“So given the big lesson from last year is that acting early can stop the need for lockdowns, as happened in Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and a number of other places, is this not a moment for ministers to say that we understand the scientists want to take their time but we have got a reasonable idea of what they are likely to recommend so we are going to get on with this booster programme before it is too late?”
Reportedly, the NHS is planning to combine a Covid vaccination booster drive with the annual flu jab programme, which could see third jabs going into arms as soon as this month.
But there remains much uncertainty about how a booster vaccination scheme would work. Last week, a person close to the JCVI told The Independent the experts were resisting intense political pressure to approve vaccines for 12-15-year-olds in order to preserve Britain’s vaccine supplies for booster jabs.
Although no formal parameters have yet been set, most scientists expect the JCVI to recommend a booster programme focusing first on those most vulnerable to Covid, largely those aged over 50 and others who are vulnerable because of other underlying health conditions.
However, the deputy chairman of the JCVI, Anthony Harnden, said last week his committee did not want to rush its decision and would instead wait for results from the Cov-Boost study, to see what immune responses are prompted by third jabs and whether different Covid vaccines can be mixed and matched.