All teenagers could be cleared to receive vaccinations against coronavirus within days, after ministers ordered a review that could override the government’s immunisation experts who have refused to recommend jabs for healthy 12 to 15-year-olds.
The chief medical officers of the four nations of the UK – including England’s Prof Chris Whitty – are expected to report as early as next week on whether the educational and social damage of the pandemic to teens should tip the balance in favour of vaccination.
With public health experts calling for a swift programme of injections to see off a feared spike in cases as children return to classrooms, the NHS and schools have been told to be ready for mass vaccinations to start as soon as the judgement of the chief medical officers is delivered.
This could mean gyms and assembly halls being converted into temporary vaccination centres or pupils being given special permission to miss classes to get the jab.
As revealed in The Independent on Tuesday, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been resisting intense political pressure to approve universal jabs for under-16s.
Downing Street said last week it hoped that the decision would come “as soon as possible”, while health secretary Sajid Javid said it was clear that “offering all teenagers the jab would solidify our wall of protection”. Education secretary Gavin Williamson said the NHS and schools are “ready and eager” to start getting youngsters protected.
But in a report to the government, the committee found that the “marginal” health benefits in this age group were not strong enough for them to recommend blanket vaccination.
Dashing widespread expectations of a mass vaccination drive of the nation’s 3.9 million 12 to 15-year-olds of the kind seen in the US and Israel, the JCVI instead recommended giving the Pfizer vaccine only to those with underlying health conditions such as sickle cell, type 1 diabetes and congenital heart disease. The decision added 200,000 to the list of younger teens already cleared to get the jab.
The immunisation experts stressed that they were qualified to assess only the health implications of the jab, and suggested ministers may want to seek further advice on broader educational and societal impacts.
The decision was met with dismay by public health experts who have been calling for vaccines to be extended to all age groups.
Virologist Stephen Griffin of the University of Leeds told The Independent: “I despair. We need to be vaccinating teenagers now and ideally – once it is approved – younger children too.
“Vaccines have changed the demographic of this disease and it is now spreading among unvaccinated groups, as we can see in the 1,100 under-18s who have been hospitalised. America and Scotland and other countries have all seen spikes in infection when their kids returned to school and now the same is going to happen in England.”
Dr Griffin called on the JCVI to publish in full the data behind its decision, saying: “It’s not good enough just to say there’s not enough health benefit. We have done our own analysis and I don’t understand how they came to that conclusion unless they have failed to include the issue of long Covid, which potentially affects one in seven of children who are infected.”
Penny Ward, visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, welcomed the decision to pass the issue onto the chief medical officers, but said the failure to include them earlier had delayed action.
“While this is probably a reasonable division of labour between a group of scientists with specific expertise in infectious disease, immunology and effects of vaccines and a group of doctors with specific training in public health, perhaps these two specialities should have been able to convene together before now to provide conjoined advice to government ministers,” said Prof Ward.
The JCVI found that healthy 12 to 15-year-olds infected with Covid-19 have only a two in a million chance of needing intensive care treatment in hospital, compared to more than 100 in a million for those with underlying conditions.
While cases of myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – among teens taking the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine were rare and usually result in a swift recovery, the committee said that there was still uncertainty about the long-term impact of the condition.
The JCVI’s chair of Covid-19 immunisation, Professor Wei Shen Lim, said: “For otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children, their risk of severe Covid-19 disease is small and therefore the potential for benefit from Covid-19 vaccination is also small. The JCVI’s view is that overall, the health benefits from Covid-19 vaccination to healthy children aged 12 to 15 years are marginally greater than the potential harms.
“Taking a precautionary approach, this margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal Covid-19 vaccination for this age group at this time. The committee will continue to review safety data as they emerge.”
In their review, the CMOs are being asked to focus solely on the interests of 12 to 15-year-olds, and not to take into account whether vaccinating them would have a health benefit for other parts of society, by protecting older people from the risk of infection.
The MHRA healthcare regulator has already approved the Pfizer and Moderna jabs on safety grounds for all those aged 12 and over.
Mr Javid today said he was “grateful for the expert advice that I have received from the independent JCVI”.
But he added: “Along with health ministers across the four nations, I have today written to the chief medical officers to ask that they consider the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds from a broader perspective, as suggested by the JCVI.
“We will then consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly.”
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