Over-16s in the UK will finally be able to get vaccinated without parental consent, regulators have decided.
Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said he would be following new advice from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to make 16- and 17-year-olds eligible for the jab.
The first jabs will be administered within weeks, and Javid said he hoped he could offer them “certainly this month”.
Up to this point, the vaccine was only available to over 18s, and those aged 12 and over with underlying health conditions or who live with immunosuppressed individuals.
The JCVI previously advised against vaccinating most children under 18 until more data on the safety of the jab was available.
Now, the specialists have recommended rolling the vaccines out to healthy 16 and 17-year-olds - and they won’t need parental consent.
Javid said: “I have accepted their expert recommendations and I have asked the NHS to prepare to vaccinate those eligible as soon as possible.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson also reiterated his support for the scientists and said: ”I think it’s very important that everyone in politics listens first to the clinicians and to the medical experts.
“I would just urge all families thinking about this across the country to listen to the JCVI.
“They are extremely expert there, they’re amongst the best if not the best in the world, they know what’s safe and I think we should listen to them and take our lead from them.”
When can 16 and 17-year-olds get their jab?
This new phase of the rollout will be handled by the Department of Health and Social Care, which works with NHS England, NHS Improvement and Public Health England.
JCVI expect it to become operational in a few weeks and aims to have this group fully vaccinated by Christmas.
Javid told broadcasters: “We had already been preparing for this possibility. We can now put that into action. I hope we can offer this very soon, certainly this month.”
While advocating for this age group to receive two jabs – just like the adult population – the JCVI intends to reveal its findings about what kind of interval should be scheduled between the two doses further down the line.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid chair for the JCVI, said in a statement: “After carefully considering the latest data, we advise that healthy 16 to 17-year-olds are offered a first dose of Pofizer-BioNTech vaccine.
“Advice on when to offer the second dose will come later.
“While Covid-19 is typically mild or asymptomatic in most young people, it can be very unpleasant for some and for this particular age group, we expect one dose of the vaccine to provide good protection against severe illness and hospitalisation.”
The committee is looking at a longer gap between each jab compared to some countries which have adopted a three-week interval because it is waiting for more data to come in.
Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said he expects this age group to be full jabbed by Christmas, and explained: “It is my confident expectation this is well achievable within one term.”
The JCVI emphasised that it came to this decision by studying the harms and benefits that vaccine could bring to this age bracket, rather than the knock-on effect this new wave of vaccination might have on the adult population.
The regulators also noted that if a child is considered able to understand the risks and benefits of the treatment being offered to them – in this case, the Covid vaccine – they are legally permitted to give their own consent.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Since the start of the NHS Covid vaccination programme, the biggest and most successful in NHS history, the NHS has followed JCVI guidance on delivering vaccinations to the population in England.
“Following the JCVI’s updated guidance on vaccinating 16 and 17 year olds with one dose, the NHS is issuing operational guidance to mobilise these changes swiftly and safely and will continue to deliver lifesaving Covid jabs to those eligible as quickly as possible, as it has done after previous updates.”
So, what’s changed?
There have been concerns that younger people could suffer from greater side–effects from the vaccine.
But the JCVI confirmed, based on its data, that serious subsequent events like the heart condition myocarditis only occur in extremely rare cases and many recover quickly.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan also told Sky News this morning that the government had been waiting for the JCVI to make a decision on vaccinating this age group.
She said this was due to the government’s trust in the specialist committee, adding: “At every stage throughout the pandemic we’ve adopted their advice on this.”
She continued: “They are the experts of course when we’re determining the vaccine rollout.”
There is an argument among some scientists that the JCVI’s decision has come “too little, too late” and that the UK is still behind the rest of the Western world in vaccinating the younger generations.
This group of 18 scientists, called Lancet, claimed the decision means this age group will not be vaccinated ahead of returning to school in September.
It also pointed out that the Pfizer vaccine was approved by the Medical and Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for over-16s back in December.
Why is this decision such a big deal?
This new move could turn the corner for the UK, according to one specialist.
Professor Paul Elliot, the director of the React programme and Imperial College London’s epidemiology and public health medicine told Sky News that the surge of infections seen last month was “driven” by the younger generations.
The professor explained: “The highest rates of infection were in the 13 to 24-year-old group.”
He also said that the viral load was lower in those who had been double-vaccinated compared to the unvaccinated, meaning the chance of passing the virus on was significantly lowered.
By vaccinating this younger group, the UK is now on a similar course to some of its European neighbours, although countries such as France have already made the jab available to those aged 12 and over.
Those eligible for the vaccine in the UK will receive the Pfizer-BioNTech jab as it is the only one approved for under 18s by British regulators, although AstraZeneca is still being trialled.
The news has come amid concerns those in the 18 to 24-years-old age bracket are reluctant to get jabbed, which has lead the government to introduce various incentives to encourage the young to get vaccinated.
While data from the Gov.uk dashboard showed that vaccine rates have slowed within most age groups, they are still rising among those aged 18-24.
What about younger age groups?
The JCVI did not rule out future vaccines for the next age group – healthy 12-15-year-olds – but it is waiting for more concrete data before making a decision.
For now, the committee is sticking to its previous recommendation that the vaccines should only be accessible to 12-15-year-olds with underlying health condition or who live with a person who is immunosuppressed.
But, scientists at Lancet have called for jabs for 12-17-year-olds, and have criticised the JCVI’s lack of transparency when it comes to the risk-benefit analysis behind their major decisions.