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UK set to expand COVID vaccine boosters amid omicron fears

People, some wearing face masks, walk in Regent Street, in London, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021. Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was necessary to take "targeted and precautionary measures" after two people tested positive for the new variant in England. He also said mask-wearing in shops and on public transport will be required. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

LONDON (AP) — The independent body advising the British government on the rollout of coronavirus vaccines is mulling whether to expand the booster program to younger age groups following the discovery of the new, potentially more dangerous omicron variant, with a decision widely expected later Monday.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has been asked by the British government to consider the merits of expanding the booster program to millions more people under the age of 40 and cutting the time period to a third jab.

Prof. Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the JCVI, told the BBC that it was “really important that we get the immunity levels in the population high” in case the omicron variant is more transmissible or protection from the vaccines is reduced.

The expected announcement comes after the Scottish Government announced that six cases of the omicron variant have been identified in Scotland, which takes the U.K. total to nine.

It said Monday it has asked public health authorities to undertake enhanced contact tracing in all cases.

Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said authorities need to be “cautious” until more is known about the variant.

“Questions remain about its severity, transmissibility and response to treatments or vaccines and scientists are working at pace to provide additional information,” Yousaf said.

Over the weekend, health authorities found three cases of the variant in England, which prompted the British government to tighten rules on mask-wearing and testing of arrivals in the country.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Saturday it was necessary to take “targeted and precautionary measures” in England. The other nations of the U.K. have had more stringent rules in place over the past few months following the lifting of most lockdown restrictions.

The new rules for England, which will see mask-wearing made compulsory in shops and on public transport on Tuesday, though not in pubs and restaurants, are expected to be reviewed in three weeks.

Britain has also convened an urgent meeting of the Group of Seven health ministers on Monday to discuss the variant. The G-7 is made up of the leading industrial economies — Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States.