Covid jabs have finally been approved for 12 to 15-year-olds, the UK’s chief medical officers have announced.
Vaccinations for school children are expected to go ahead as early as next week after Chris Whitty and his counterparts agreed that jabs would help minimise the disruption of education.
The experts have advised health secretary Sajid Javid that the overall benefits to teenagers’ mental health and physical health justifies the jabs.
A single dose of the Pfizer vaccine will be offered to every child over 12 through usual in-school vaccination programmes, although a second jab could be an option from the spring if more data justifies the move.
The Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI) refused to approve widespread use of vaccination among under-16s earlier this month, stating that there was only a “marginal” benefit of the jabs given a small risk of heart disease.
But the JCVI made clear that wider advantages to children, such as allowing them to stay in school with protection from the virus, could be better assessed by medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
And the four medical chiefs announced on Monday that their overall view was that vaccinations would help children not just in the short term but the long term.
At a Downing Street press conference, Whitty stressed there was no contradiction between his advice and the suggestions of the JCVI.
“Our view, which is a view of the great majority of doctors and public health professionals, is that these two are not in conflict.”
Professor Wei Shen Lim, of the JCVI, added: “I want to stress that this by no means there is any conflict between the advice provided by JCVI and the advice and the decision made by the CMOs to the secretary of state.”
Whitty and fellow experts stated that vaccination in children would help reduce the spread of the virus within schools, but stressed that they were not making any assessments of the policy’s impact on the wider community of adults.
Crucially, they stressed without vaccinations there would be a “lifelong” risk to children’s mental and physical wellbeing from disrupted schooling after 18 months of damage to education since the pandemic began.
“The negative impact has been especially great in areas of relative deprivation
which have been particularly badly affected by Covid-19,” the chief medical officers (CMOs) said in their letter to ministers.
“The effects of missed or disrupted education are even more apparent and enduring in these areas. The effects of disrupted education, or uncertainty, on mental health are well recognised. There can be lifelong effects on health if extended disruption to education leads to reduced life chances.”
The JCVI has already recommended that children and young people aged 12 to 17 with specific underlying health conditions, and children and young people who are aged 12 years and over who are household contacts of people who are immunocompromised are offered two doses of a vaccine.
Whitty and his colleagues consulted widely among royal colleges of GPs and paediatrics, as well as public health directors.
In their advice, they stated: “The UK CMOs, in common with the clinical and wider public health community, consider education one of the most important drivers of improved public health and mental health.”
They said that while full closures of schools due to lockdowns were now “much less likely to be necessary in the next stages” of the pandemic they still “expect the epidemic to continue to be prolonged and unpredictable”.
“Local surges of infection, including in schools, should be anticipated for some time. Where they occur, they are likely to be disruptive.”
They stressed that under-16s would be allowed to make their own decisions about getting the jab without parental consent, as long as they were deemed to be “competent” enough to do so.
“A childcentred approach to communication and deployment of the vaccine should be the primary objective,” they said.
The medical officers believe the long standing law on parental consent already covers situations where youngsters want the jab even if their parents disagree.
“It is essential that children and young people aged 12-15 and their parents are supported in their decisions, whatever decisions they take, and are not stigmatised either for accepting, or not accepting, the vaccination offer. Individual choice should be respected.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have received advice from the four UK Chief Medical Officers on offering COVID-19 vaccination to young people aged 12-15. We will set out the government’s decision shortly.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The decision by the Chief Medical Officers to encourage the take up of vaccinations by 12-15 year olds will be another tool to help pupils sustain their access to education throughout the autumn and winter.
“While we recognise that a decision on vaccinating children needed careful evidential judgement, it would have been better if a decision could have been made earlier during the summer holidays.
“It will now be well into the autumn before the impact of the vaccination programme will be felt. Schools must be given timely and clear guidance for the next steps.”