Omicron variant: Welsh NHS asked to cancel leave in huge Christmas booster call to arms

Welsh NHS staff have been asked to cancel their Christmas plans in order to help deliver Wales' vaccine booster programme.

Wales' health minister, Eluned Morgan, confirmed the Omicron variant of coronavirus is now present in every health board in Wales.

Wales' NHS will turn its focus to upscaling the country's vaccine booster programme, with staff being asked to cancel their leave plans in order to work throughout the Christmas period.

Speaking at a Welsh Government coronavirus press briefing, Ms Morgan said: "Cases of omicron are growing daily. It is now present in every health board area in Wales.

"We must be prepared for cases to rise very quickly and steeply.

"Every day we are learning more about this incredibly fast-moving form of coronavirus, which emerged just three weeks ago in South Africa.“It was our intention to offer all eligible adults an appointment by the end of January. We are now aiming to offer all eligible adults an appointment by the end of December."

On Monday, First Minister Mark Drakeford said Wales will aim to offer all over-18s a booster vaccine by the end of the year, with those being administered by mid-January.

A booster jab is viewed as a vital tool in preventing serious illness from the Omicron variant.

NHS Wales gave out a record number of booster jabs in a day on Monday, as 26,676 jabs were given out, an increase of nearly 10,000 on a week previous.

The Welsh Government calculates that around 40,000 jabs will need to be administered daily in order to reach the new target.

Ms Morgan said the government is asking a "huge amount of the NHS"

She continued: "We’re asking a huge amount of the NHS – we’re asking staff to cancel leave and to work in clinics day and night up to and through Christmas to vaccinate hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of weeks.

"We have been working with health boards since the weekend to make changes to the vaccination programme to go further and faster.

"This will mean the focus of the NHS will need to shift towards vaccinating people for a short time.

"The NHS will continue to provide essential services, emergency and urgent care.

"But we will be redeploying all available clinical staff to vaccination centres.

"We’ll be asking them to work in existing mass vaccination centres, which will be expanded to their maximum capacity and in new centres.

"Many of the centres will be expanded to have dedicated walk-in lanes – we will be targeting these walk-in slots at particular groups of people."We’ll be looking at expanding existing opening hours – centres are already open from 9am to 8pm.

"This will mean asking NHS staff to vaccinate from early in the morning to late into the night to make sure as many people as possible have the extra protection the booster dose offers.

"We’ve already taken steps to accelerate the vaccine programme – today’s figures show a big increase in boosters given and more than 1.1m have already had their booster.

"Hundreds of thousands of appointments have already been issued. These appointments will remain in place."

What happens next?

Every adult in Wales that has received two doses of a vaccine will receive an invitation for a vaccine in the coming days either by phone or text.

People will then be called forward in order of their risk group.

Ms Morgan continued: "As well as giving people appointments, we’ll also be asking some people to come to a walk-in slot at one of the newly-extended vaccine clinics.

 "We will continue to call people forward in order of risk.

"Expanding the booster programme is a massive undertaking. We’ll need to more than double the speed of the programme if we’re going to be successful."

Public Health Wales' Dr Gill Richardson also confirmed a bid for over 100 military staff to help administer vaccines is also in place, as well as a call for help from medical students across Wales.

"We all need a booster dose to increase our protection against the virus.

"Of course, it is never too late for people to be vaccinated. If you haven’t had your first or second dose please make arrangements to come and be vaccinated now so we can start your course of vaccines as soon as possible.

"We also need to protect our NHS at this time – it is already under significant pressure responding to winter illnesses, caring for people with Covid-19 and catching up with treatments which were delayed earlier in the pandemic."

"Make every effort to attend their booster appointment"

Credit: PA

Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation, Darren Hughes, has urged the public to work with NHS staff who are being asked to sacrifice their Christmasses by accepting vaccine invitations.

Mr Hughes said: “Accelerating the booster programme further is a clear priority for the NHS in Wales in the coming weeks.

“While none of the existing pressures on the system have gone away, the immediate focus of efforts has adjusted to prioritise vaccinating as many people as possible, as quickly as possible.

"We thank all staff and volunteers that have come forward to help with this enormous challenge.

“We must all take this seriously and take responsibility for our actions to protect ourselves, our families and the NHS.

"The more transmissible nature of Omicron means there is the potential to overwhelm the NHS because of the sheer volume of cases we are likely to see in the coming weeks and months.

“We’re grateful for the huge efforts people have made throughout the pandemic and in particular want to thank the incredible staff who have been working relentlessly for almost two years to keep the people of Wales safe.”

How will the booster programme be paid for?

In line with plans in England, the UK Government has confirmed additional funding will be made available for the Welsh Government.

Any additional Barnett formula funding will not be confirmed until early 2022, but the UK Treasury has announced extra funding to "provide greater certainty" in the immediate weeks to come.

The additional funding is expected to be finalised in the coming days and will be kept under review.

Announcing the funding, UK chancellor Rishi Sunak said: “Throughout this pandemic, the United Kingdom has stood together as one family, and we will continue to do so.  

“We are working with the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to drive the vaccine rollout to all corners of the United Kingdom and ensure people and businesses all across the country are supported.”