The government’s official advisers on vaccines will not be rushed into launching an immunisation programme for teenagers despite demands from teaching leaders to prioritise secondary school pupils.
It is understood that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) regards the ethical issues involved in vaccinating children to be delicately balanced and will require a complicated series of judgments about how to proceed in coming weeks.
On one side, it is clear that children transmit Covid to some extent and vaccinating them would help to cut case rates. However, it has also been pointed out that children rarely suffer badly from the disease themselves, and giving them vaccines, would put them at risk of possible side-effects.
There needs to be some significant, tangible benefit to them, not just the indirect protection of adults from Covid-19 in vaccinating youngsters, say researchers. Such a situation could arise if a particularly severe third Covid-19 wave were to begin, triggering new lockdowns that might result in school closures and renewed disruption of children’s education. Then a vaccination programme for the young might be justified, it is argued.
The JCVI is to consider the issue after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was approved for children aged 12-15 in the UK by the medicines regulator. It is already approved for that age group in the US, Canada and the EU.
There is also wider concern across the scientific and medical community that once all UK adults have been vaccinated, the vaccines may be of more benefit if given to more adults in other countries. This point was recently stressed by the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who said that although he understood why some countries wanted to vaccinate children and adolescents, he urged them to reconsider.
“In low- and lower-middle-income countries, Covid-19 vaccine supply has not been enough to even immunise healthcare workers, and hospitals are being inundated with people who need lifesaving care urgently,” he said.
Teaching leaders have called for pupils to be vaccinated as a matter of priority, with data showing that outbreaks of the Delta variant of Covid were occurring in schools throughout England. The variant, first detected in India, appears to be more transmissible than previous dominant variants. Unions said starting a vaccination programme for teenagers soon could mean most secondary school pupils would receive two doses by the time schools begin the new term in September.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has indicated that there is “enough supply” to offer the vaccine to children aged 12 and over if the JCVI makes that recommendation.
The government is pushing the use of regular testing as the best way of identifying asymptomatic cases and keeping schools open. This comes as education secretary Gavin Williamson urged pupils and their families to take a test before they return to school after half term this week. “As half-term comes to an end, take a Covid test before going back to the classroom,” he said. “Asymptomatic testing helps break chains of transmission by taking people who are infectious but don’t know it out of circulation.”The department said covid-related pupil absence had remained “consistently low” since the start of the summer term, with only approximately 1% of pupils absent from state-funded schools for covid-related reasons each day since 21 April.
Figures published earlier this week show more than 50m rapid coronavirus tests have been conducted among school students and staff at schools and colleges across England since 4 January.