Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has confirmed the government has accepted the recommendation for children aged 12 to 15 in England to be offered their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine.
Earlier on Tuesday, the UK’s chief medical officers announced they had finally approved jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds as Chris Whitty and his counterparts agreed they would help minimise the disruption of education.
Zahawi told MPs: “We will now move with the same sense of urgency we’ve had at every point in our vaccination programme.”
Making a statement to the Commons, he highlighted the impact of vaccines.
He told MPs: “We know vaccinations are our best defence against this virus. Our jabs have already prevented over 112,000 deaths, more than 143,000 hospitalisations and over 24 million infections.
“They have built a vast wall of defence for the British people.”
He went on to recap the “unanimous” recommendation from the UK’s chief medical officers to offer children aged 12 to 15 one jab of the Pfizer vaccine.
Zahawi said further Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) guidance is needed before any decision on a second dose.
Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson, who works as an NHS doctor, has insisted she is “not comfortable” with the reasoning behind giving vaccines to over-12s.
And Conservative former leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith warned “family disputes” could emerge over the decision on whether or not a child should be jabbed.
Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, suggested antibody testing should be offered to children before their parents make a decision, while Tory former minister Steve Baker sought assurances that vaccination status would not affect a youngster’s access to teaching.
Questions were also raised over who makes the decision for children in the care system to receive Covid jabs.
Making a late night statement to the Commons, Zahawi said parental consent will be needed for vaccinations of 12 to 15-year-olds – but children can overrule parents who do not want them to get the jab if deemed “competent”.
Dr Johnson later said: “I have given many vaccines in my time, including hundreds more recently of Covid vaccines.
“But I am not comfortable with vaccinating teenagers to prevent educational disruption.
“No child needs to isolate under current rules if they are a contact – only if they are a positive case and the maximum in that case would be eight days of schooling. That is if they caught it during term time.
“Half of children have already had coronavirus and are very likely to get it again. Does the minister really believe that vaccinating three million children to prevent an average of four days of school or less is really reasonable?”
Zahawi replied: “All I would say to her is I think it is important the Government accepts the final decision, the unanimous decision, of the four chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.”
Sir Iain added: “Where there is a dispute we say that the school makes a decision as to whether or not that child has the capacity to make that decision.
“Now, we know, and this is the point, the pressure will grow on the child. This greater good concept which says ‘Well the school may be in trouble if you don’t take the vaccine and your class may be in deep difficulty’.
“There is no way of legislating for that. I simply say to him, this is a real problem for us, it will lead to disputes in families and real problems about children’s mental health in the opposite direction as they are put under pressure.”
Zahawi replied: “He mentioned in his question it would lead to teachers having to – actually it is quite the opposite, it is not the teacher’s responsibility to do this, it is a qualified clinician.
“The school age vaccination programme is very well equipped to do this, to do this in a discrete and careful way with parents and children, but the bulk of vaccinations – this would be in the very rare occasions – the bulk of vaccinations will only be conducted if there is parental consent.”
Baker later asked: “Will he guarantee that a child’s ability to receive an education equally with their peers will never be linked to their vaccination status?”
Zahawi replied: “That will not be used in any way. The whole purpose of this is to accept the clinical advice and protect children.”
On children in care, Conservative former children’s minister Tim Loughton asked: “Will it be the default position, as corporate parents, that all children in the care system will be vaccinated and then what then happens if the birth parent or the long-term foster carer has an objection to that?”
Zahawi replied: “It will be the deemed carer for that child that will be requested to make that consent.”