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IIt is now fairly well known that the most severe cases of Covid-19 in the UK and other wealthy countries are increasingly concentrated among the unvaccinated. Between January and September, there were 34,474 deaths from Covid in England of unvaccinated people aged 10 or older, compared with 4,308 deaths of those who received two doses of the vaccine (another set of figures, also released by the Office for National Statistics and based on a different data set gives the total of 40,966 unvaccinated deaths, compared to 5,104 double-vaccinated).

The British Health Security Agency was careful to point out that the data “does not show causal links between vaccines and mortality risks.” Other differences between the vaccinated and unvaccinated groups could contribute to their different death rates. But the contrast is dramatic, as is the data relating to hospitalization, with a recent analysis showing that out of 40,000 hospitalized Covid patients, 84% were not vaccinated and only 3% were doubly vaccinated.

Already, the relatively low uptake of vaccines among some groups was a cause for concern, especially among doctors who described their distress in the face of dying people who deliberately avoided vaccines. In children 12 to 15 years old, the vaccination rate is 39.1% (compared to 67.4% of adults who have received at least one dose, although the risk posed to children by Covid-19 is lower). But concerns over the arrival of the Omicron variant, against which current vaccines may be less effective, make the issue of vaccination more urgent – and the gaps more alarming.

At a press conference chaired by Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, it was announced on Monday that children between the ages of 12 and 15 would now be eligible to receive a second dose 12 weeks after their initial injection. The decision whether or not to vaccinate young children will likely be made before Christmas (in the United States, the Pfizer / BioNTech vaccine has been approved for people aged five to 11). All adults will be offered boosters, where a fortnight ago these were mostly reserved for over 40s. Those with weakened immune systems are also eligible for an additional (fourth) booster shot. Advice to pregnant women to get vaccinated was reinforced late.

The goal, as Prof. Van-Tam and others have explained, is to try to “get ahead” of the mutating virus and behave on precautionary principles (about a dozen cases of Omicron have been detected in the UK so far, with hundreds more expected). New rules concerning the wearing of masks, including in secondary schools, make sense in this context. Ventilation has been neglected in the past and needs more attention.

The Omicron variant may not prove to be more dangerous than the Delta variant. But ministers should seize this moment and use it to improve their messages on vaccines, starting with the prime minister himself. With vaccines now mandatory for nursing home workers, and causing problems where staff have left their jobs rather than being trapped, it is up to senior politicians to lead by example, by allying with scientists rather than libertarians in their backseat. They also need to do more to tackle vaccine misinformation online, both by publicly demanding that Facebook and other platforms crack down on the dangerous anti-vaxx propaganda they allow to spread unchecked, but also by countering lies with their own words and actions.

The pandemic is not over. Again, the level of danger may be on the rise. Along with the delivery of boosters, increasing the immunization rate must now be the government’s national priority – while internationally, it must do everything possible to promote immunization efforts globally.

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