Education bosses have called for schoolchildren to be vaccinated before the start of the school holidays after UK regulators approved jabs for teenagers.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) yesterday approved the Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds.
It was approved for over-15s in December last year and it will now be allowed to be given to anyone over the age of 12 because the ‘benefits outweigh any risk’.
Ministers have asked the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) whether to give the jab to teenagers — the current rollout is set to stop at age 18 except for children with serious health conditions.
The JCVI — which normally rules who should get a vaccine — is expected to tell No10 that jabbing children is a ‘political’ decision and will leave the ball in ministers’ court.
Teaching union and school leaders today said starting vaccinating children soon could ensure they have had both jabs by the time they start the school year in September.
But vaccinating children against the virus is a controversial issue because youngsters only have a tiny risk of getting seriously ill and their immunity would likely only protect older adults.
More than 100 cross-party MPs and the World Health Organization have said the priority should be to get vaccine doses abroad to poorer countries where vulnerable people still haven’t been jabbed before giving them to low-risk children.
Hamid Patel, chief executive of the Star Academies school trust based in Blackburn — the area of the country with the most cases of the Covid Indian variant — said schoolchildren should be vaccinated as a matter of priority.
He said there would be a much higher uptake if children were given the jab during term time before the school holidays.
Education bosses have called for schoolchildren to be vaccinated before the start of the school holidays after UK regulators approved jabs for teenagers. Pictured left: A 16-year-old girl is given the AstraZeneca vaccine as part of its trial in April. Right: Tilda, 16, receives the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine
Hamid Patel, chief executive of the Star Academies school trust based in Blackburn said schoolchildren should be vaccinated as a matter of priority
Mr Patel’s trust runs schools across Blackburn, Bolton and Manchester — hotspots for the Indian Covid variant. Pictured: The Eden Boy’s School in Bolton
Mr Patel told the Guardian: ‘This is very welcome news. We now need to ensure that all teenagers have received at least the first jab before the summer holidays.
‘Schools are best placed to accommodate vaccinations and the infrastructure is already in place for delivering inoculations.
‘We will get much higher take-up if we ask youngsters to receive the jab in term time rather than when they are enjoying their holidays. This will also enable all of us to have a safer, freer and more normal summer.’
He said ensuring children are vaccinated will stop the Indian variant spreading rapidly in young people in hotspots in the country.
And Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, also urged the JCVI to consider expanding the roll-out to teenagers.
He said offering them the vaccine would ‘protect the wider adult population who are at greater risk from Covid’.
There are ‘ethical dilemmas’ to be considered when it comes to the decision on whether or not to vaccinate children against Covid-19, an expert has said.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said while a ‘very small minority’ of children have been severely affected by the virus, children ‘in the main’ do not get severe illness.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘I think the vast majority of benefit won’t be to children, it will be an indirect benefit to adults in terms of preventing transmission and protecting adults who haven’t been immunised, for whatever reason haven’t responded to the vaccine and therefore that presents quite a lot of ethical dilemmas as to whether you should vaccinate children to protect adults.’
He added: ‘We need to be absolutely sure that the benefits to them (children) and potentially to society far outweigh any risks.’
He said the JCVI will likely present a range of options to Government and referenced the question as to whether vaccines should be shared around the world rather than being given to children in the UK.
DECISION ON CHILDREN’S JABS COULD FALL TO BORIS JOHNSON
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to ‘come up with a menu of options’ for the Prime Minister but not to offer a definitive recommendation on jabs for those under the age of 18.
Children aren’t yet given vaccines because their risk of getting serious Covid is so tiny and their immunity would likely only protect older adults, making it a complex issue – vaccinating against measles, for example, directly protects the child so is more clear-cut.
Ministers will be forced to decide whether the tiny risk of side effects in children is worth the benefit of protecting more adults and stifling the virus.
JCVI deputy chair Professor Anthony Harnden said on BBC Breakfast in May: ‘We do know that the majority of children do not have huge risk of complications, whether we vaccinate for educational purposes, whether we vaccinate to protect others in the population, these are the ethical issues, there are a lot of issues to think about.
‘It’s a complicated position to decide on the immunisation of children, of course, then there’s the wider global ethical argument about the use of vaccine in children when there are other people in the world that are at risk of not being vaccinated.
‘So we need to think about all these issues, we probably will give the Government a range of options.’
He said: ‘There is the other wider ethical issue of whether you vaccinate children in this country or whether you donate that vaccine internationally to low and middle income countries where they still have an at-risk adult population that haven’t been vaccinated.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said the UK has ‘enough supply’ to offer the vaccine to children aged 12 and over if recommended to do so by the JCVI.
He also signalled it would be his ‘first duty’ to see children in the UK vaccinated rather than donate doses to developing countries.
He told reporters: ‘My first role, my first duty as Health Secretary for the UK is to make sure that the UK is protected and safe.
‘And while thankfully, children are very rarely badly affected by Covid themselves, they can still pass on the disease – and so that is my first duty.’
Last month the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group said it is ‘morally wrong’ to offer Covid-19 jabs to children in wealthy countries when high-risk groups in poorer nations remain unvaccinated.
Professor Andrew Pollard, who helped develop the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 jab, told the All Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus that children had a ‘near-to-zero’ risk of severe disease or death from Covid-19 and that global vaccine inequity was ‘plain to see’.
More than 6million under-17s have already been vaccinated in the US after it became the first country to approve the jab for children last month.
While Pfizer’s trials have not seen any new side effects and very few serious ones, seven American teenage boys developed heart inflammation after second dose of and were taken to hospital.
None were critically ill, and all were healthy enough to be sent home after two to six days in the hospital. Similar reports of young men suffering inflamed hearts have emerged in Israel, too.
But pressure to vaccinate children in the UK could build up in the coming months as it emerges the now-dominant Indian variant is spreading quickly among them and may be more likely to make them sick.
Ministers might be forced to give youngsters a jab if they want to keep the super-infectious strain under control.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: ‘Following a robust review of the evidence, the MHRA has concluded the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine meets its high standards, authorising use for those aged 12-15.
‘The government has asked the JCVI to advise whether routine vaccination should be offered to those aged 12-17. ‘
Dr June Raine, chief of the the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) said: ‘We have carefully reviewed clinical trial data in children aged 12 to 15 years and have concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective in this age group and that the benefits of this vaccine outweigh any risk.’
She added: ‘No extension to an authorisation would be approved unless the expected standards of safety, quality and effectiveness have been met.’
Pfizer’s clinical trial of around 2,000 teenagers found nobody given two doses tested positive for coronavirus, compared to 16 who were unvaccinated. The jab appears to work just as well as it does in adults, health chiefs said.
The decision comes at a pivotal time in Britain’s outbreak as cases are back on the rise and there are fears the new Indian ‘Delta’ variant is going to spark a third wave.
Children’s role in fuelling the next surge is unlikely but they will have some of the highest infection rates because they aren’t vaccinated, which will allow the virus to keep circulating and increase the risk of spillover into high-risk older people.
ARE WE AHEAD WITH THE VACCINE ROLL-OUT? WHY YOUNG HEALTHY PEOPLE IN THEIR 20s ARE GETTING CALLED UP FOR A JAB
The UK’s coronavirus vaccine rollout is reaching younger people in England, despite eligibility criteria stating only those aged 30 and over are currently being invited to book their first dose.
But why are healthy people in their 20s now be getting their call-up for the jab?
What is the current eligibility criteria in the UK?
All those aged 30 and over are currently being offered the vaccine in England and Scotland, while in Wales and Northern Ireland this is everyone aged 18 and over.
When are all adults due to be offered the vaccine?
The Government has said it intends to offer a first dose of a vaccine to all adults by the end of July, and both doses to everyone aged 50 and over by June 21.
So, why might healthy younger people in England have already received their first dose?
The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has said that in some areas, GPs have vaccinated all those eligible and so are moving to the next cohort.
Dr Steve Mowle, spokesman and a GP in south London, said: ‘At some sites, it is likely GPs have finished vaccinating all eligible patients including those aged 30 and over and are now moving onto the next age cohort.
‘This only shows how successful the Covid vaccination programme has been so far, and the incredible and pivotal work of GPs and teams in delivering the programme so efficiently.’
Could there be other reasons?
Yes. Guidance from the British Medical Association (BMA), a trade union and professional body for doctors, says that surplus vaccine supply may occur and that the overriding principle is to avoid wastage.
‘Sites should have reserve lists that they can use to make every effort to invite patients or healthcare professionals to make full use of any unused vaccines rather than have any go to waste,’ the guidance states.
‘If necessary, remaining doses can be given outside the current cohorts if there is no-one else available.’
How are healthy people in their 20s booking their jabs?
In cases where GPs have vaccinated all over 30s and are moving to the next cohort, people who are now eligible will be contacted by the site.
Elsewhere, other vaccine centres are holding drop-in centres where anyone aged over 25 – and in some cases 18 – can turn up on the day to be vaccinated without an appointment.
What jabs are being offered to younger cohorts?
Official advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation says that under 40s should be offered alternatives to the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine.
The UK’s advisory body made the precautionary change because of evidence the vaccine may be linked to very rare blood clots, meaning the Moderna and Pfizer jabs are being favoured for this age group.