(Bloomberg) — Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government faces growing demands to urgently accelerate the vaccine rollout in U.K. Covid-19 hotspots to prevent the virus getting out of control again.
Andy Burnham, the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester, has asked the government for permission to vaccinate all people over the age of 16 in Bolton, a town in northwest England that has seen a surge in cases among younger people in the last two weeks. Conservative MP Mark Logan then asked Johnson directly in the House of Commons if he would consider it.
“We’re looking at all the potential solutions for the surges we’re seeing in Bolton and elsewhere, including the one he describes, though that’s not top of the list at the moment,” Johnson replied.
Under government guidelines as of Wednesday, only people aged 40 or over are eligible to receive a vaccine, as well as those with underlying conditions — though some areas are now offering to those in their late 30s.
But demands are growing for a more localized approach to help tackle outbreaks, alongside surge testing to better pinpoint who has the virus.
The emergence of hotspots runs counter to the broader trend in the U.K., which has seen a dramatic fall in Covid-19 infections across Britain in recent months and more than 50 million people have received at least one vaccine dose.
Johnson announced Monday that the next step of lockdown easing will go ahead from next week, with people allowed to meet indoors again at home and in pubs and restaurants.
Government scientists have raised fears, however, about the rise of a virus mutation first detected in India, which could be more transmissible than the so-called Kent variant that triggered a national lockdown in January.
Surge testing has already been rolled out in Bolton, which has one of the highest rates of the India variant.
Burnham said he wants the government to change vaccination rules so Greater Manchester — which includes Bolton — “could move more quickly beyond the age progression” set out by the government’s vaccine committee.
Other areas in England had already made similar requests, he told a press conference on Tuesday. “It might be able to mitigate the risks of spread in those communities where we’re seeing more transmission.”
Covid-19 cases in Bolton almost doubled in the seven days to May 6 compared with the week before, according to the latest data — a rate of 134 cases per 100,000 people.
Burnham said the outbreak is mainly affecting “younger people, the working age population,” many of whom had not yet been vaccinated.
Blackburn, just north of Bolton, has also seen a rise in cases — logging 127 infections, up two thirds in a week. The Derbyshire town of Erewash is currently England’s worst coronavirus hotspot, with a rate of 187 cases per 100,000 population after an outbreak at a school.
The Department of Health and Social Care said no decisions had been made on whether to change the way vaccines were rolled out. “The priority order is primarily based on age, which is the biggest factor determining mortality,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.
Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, told reporters Wednesday the government is monitoring hotspots and the emergence of Covid variants “very closely.”
Earlier, Environment Secretary George Eustice signaled the government is unlikely to change course. “Once you start bringing in complications it gets more difficult to deliver,” he told Sky News.