NHS ‘ready and eager’ to roll out Covid vaccine to children under 16, says Gavin Williamson

Education secretary heaps pressure on scientists to approve jab for 12- to 15-year-olds

Adam Forrest
Thursday 02 September 2021 19:06 BST
Gavin Williamson wants Covid vaccine rolled out to children under 16

The NHS is “ready and eager” to deliver the Covid vaccine to school children between the ages of 12 and 15, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

The cabinet minister said he “hoped” the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) – the expert body advising the government on the programme – would soon recommend jabs for children under 16.

Heaping pressure on the JCVI to make a decision, Mr Williamson claimed both the health service and schools would be ready to deliver a programme of jabs for teenagers “at pace”.

He told BBC Breakfast: “A lot of us are very keen to hear that and very much hope we’re in a position to roll out vaccinations for those who are under of 16. I’m certainly hoping it’s a decision that will be made very, very soon.”

The education secretary also told Sky News that the NHS is “ready and eager to go in terms of delivering that vaccination programme for children”.

Mr Williamson added: “Speaking as a parent myself I think parents would find it incredible reassuring to know they had a choice as to whether their child would be vaccinated or not.”

The minister said school leaders had experience in organising vaccinations and had “systems of consent” in place to get approval from parents. “We’re ready – if we get the get go from the JCVI, we’re ready.”

Mr Williamson added: “We’ll obviously be looking to do that at pace if we get approval. I very much wait with bated breath the decision from JCVI.”

But the government’s JCVI advisers are thought to be resisting the intense political pressure to give the go-ahead for Covid jabs for 12- to 15-year-olds because of fears it could disrupt the programme of boosters for vulnerable older people.

A person close to the JCVI told The Independent that there is “a need to consider how to prioritise boosters for vulnerable groups and a campaign for that, along with getting people to have their second doses before trying to launch a schools programme”.

But Mr Williamson insisted that there was the capacity to both give Covid vaccinations to 12- to 15-year-olds and deliver a booster programme. “We’ve got the capacity to be able to deliver vaccinations for children as well as deliver a booster programme, so it’s not either-or.”

As the new school year starts this week for many students in England, Mr Williamson said he would “move heaven and earth” to avoid shutting schools again – but did not rule out classes having to take place outside in the event of new Covid outbreaks.

“It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in autumn and winter,” the education secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“This is why we’re doing the testing programme and we’re encouraging children to take part in it, parents, and of course teachers and support staff as well.”

Asked why many schools did not yet have the CO2 monitors to improve ventilation of classrooms in a bid to reduce Covid outbreaks, Mr Williamson said: “They are being rolled out during this term.”

Meanwhile, education bosses have written to Mr Williamson demanding an additional £5.8bn to help pupils in England whose learning has been affected by the pandemic.

A letter to the education secretary – whose signatories included the Association of School and College Leaders and the Association of Colleges – said that not investing more in catch-up support now would lead to “greater costs down the line”.

It comes as new research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies showed that school spending per pupil in England will remain lower than in 2010 following a decade of budget cuts.

The think tank also said that disadvantaged pupils in the poorest parts of England have suffered from the biggest cuts over the decade of austerity.

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