UK

Gavin Williamson urges JCVI to hurry up and make a decision on vaccinating over-12s against Covid

Gavin Williamson today piled pressure on the Government’s vaccine advisory panel to sign off on plans to vaccinate children against Covid. 

During a round of interviews this morning, the Education Secretary said he ‘very much hoped’ that the group would come down in favour of jabbing youngsters aged 12 to 15.  

He suggested that the delayed decision was making parents anxious about sending their children back to classrooms this week after the summer break.

‘I think parents would find it deeply reassuring to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — an independent body which advises No10 on Covid jabs — is still weighing up the risks and benefits of vaccinating children.

In guidance published in July, the group said the small risk of heart inflammation from vaccines outweighed the vanishingly small threat coronavirus poses to them.

It was also not convinced that vaccinating children solely to protect adults justified the move and raised doubts about the true prevalence of long Covid in youngsters. 

But pressure has been mounting on the JCVI to green light the move after Covid cases skyrocketed in Scotland when classes went back after the summer break in mid-August.

There are fears of a similar big bang in cases now that schools across the rest of the UK have started to restart. The country is already recording 35,000 infections each day and hospitalisations are creeping up.

But Professor Anthony Harnden, one of the chief scientists on the JCVI, said today the group would do what’s best for children ‘no matter what other people outside the committee think’.

A member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) suggested giving children one dose of Covid vaccine because heart complications are more common following the second injection.

Latest estimates from a symptom-tracking app suggested under-18s had the second highest number of Covid cases in the country (blue line). Only 18 to 35-year-olds had a higher number of Covid cases (orange line). That is despite schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only starting to go back this week. The data is from the ZOE Covid Symptom Study

Latest Public Health England data showed Covid cases are rising fastest among 10 to 19-year-olds (grey line) and 20 to 29-year-olds (green line). Approving Covid vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds would likely help curb the spread of the virus in the age group, scientists in favour of the move add

Latest Public Health England data showed Covid cases are rising fastest among 10 to 19-year-olds (grey line) and 20 to 29-year-olds (green line). Approving Covid vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds would likely help curb the spread of the virus in the age group, scientists in favour of the move add

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Williamson made it clear he was in favour of vaccinating secondary school-aged children.

‘Probably a lot of us are very keen to hear that and very much hope that we’re in a position of being able to roll out vaccinations for those who are under the age of 16,’ he said.

‘I would certainly be hoping that it is a decision that will be made very, very soon.’

He added: ‘I think parents would find it deeply reassuring to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not. We obviously wait for the decision of JCVI.’

WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF VACCINATING CHILDREN?

Pros

Protecting adults 

The main argument in favour of vaccinating children is in order to prevent them keeping the virus in circulation long enough for it to transmit back to adults.

Experts fear that unvaccinated children returning to classrooms in September could lead to a boom in cases among people in the age group, just as immunity from jabs dished out to older generations earlier in the year begins to wane.

This could trigger another wave of the virus if left unchecked, with infection spilling into older age groups and triggering more hospitalisations and deaths. 

However, the rise of the Delta variant has blunted vaccines’ effect on blocking transmission which has raised further doubts. 

Avoiding long Covid in children

While the risk of serious infection from Covid remains low in most children, scientists are still unsure of the long-term effects the virus may have on them.

Concerns have been raised in particular about the incidence of long Covid — the little understood condition when symptoms persist for many more weeks than normal — in youngsters.

A study by King’s College London showed fewer than two per cent of children who develop Covid symptoms continue to suffer with them for more than eight weeks.

Just 25 of the 1,734 children studied — 0.01 per cent — suffered symptoms for longer than a year. 

Other studies have suggested up to half of children infected with Covid suffer from lingering symptoms months later — but they are thought to only be very mild. 

Cons

Health risks

Extremely rare incidences of a rare heart condition have been linked to the Pfizer vaccine in youngsters.

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in the US — where 9million 12- to 17-year-olds have already been vaccinated — shows there is around a one in 14,500 to 18,000 chance of boys in the age group developing myocarditis after having their second vaccine dose.

This is vanishingly small. For comparison, the chance of finding a four-leaf clover is one in 10,000, and the chance of a woman having triplets is one in 4,478.

The risk is higher than in 18- to 24-year-olds (one in 18,000 to 22,000), 25- to 29-year-olds (one in 56,000 to 67,000) and people aged 30 and above (one in 250,000 to 333,000). But, again, this is very low.

Britain’s drug regulator the MHRA lists the rare heart condition as a very rare side-effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

They said: ‘There have been very rare reports of myocarditis and pericarditis (the medical term for the condition) occurring after vaccination. These are typically mild cases and individuals tend to recover within a short time following standard treatment and rest.’ 

More than four times as many hospitalisations were prevented as there were cases of myocarditis caused by the vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds, the health body’s data show.  

Jabs should be given to other countries

Experts have also claimed it would be better to donate jabs intended for teenagers in the UK to other countries where huge swathes of the vulnerable population remain unvaccinated.

Not only would this be a moral move but it is in the UK’s own interest because the virus will remain a threat to Britain as long as it is rampant anywhere in the world.

Most countries across the globe are lagging significantly behind the UK in terms of their vaccine rollout, with countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America remaining particularly vulnerable.

Jabs could be better used vaccinating older people in those countries, and thus preventing the virus from continuing to circulate globally and mutate further, than the marginal gains to transmission Britain would see if children are vaccinated, experts argue. 

Professor David Livermore, from the University of East Anglia, has said: ‘Limited vaccine supplies would be far better used in countries and regions with large vulnerable elderly populations who presently remain unvaccinated — Australia, much of South East Asia and Latin America, as well as Africa.’ 

Mr Williamson could not give a timeline for when the decision is expected because the JCVI is a ‘completely independent committee’.

‘They’re not there to take instructions from the Government. They will reach a decision, I’m told and I understand, very, very soon.’ 

In a separate interview with Sky News, he added: ‘If we get the get-go from JCVI we’re ready, the NHS, which has been so successful in rolling out this programme of vaccination, is ready to go into schools and deliver that vaccination programme for children.’ 

The Government has put added pressure on the JCVI for a decision by instructing the NHS to have the staff and logistics in place to start rolling the vaccines out in schools from this week — without their parent’s consent.  

But Professor Harnden said the JCVI was committed to doing what is in children’s best interests, regardless of political pressure.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘There’s many, many arguments for and against giving vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds, and we’re deliberating on what we think as a committee is best for children. 

‘And that is the key thing: whatever we decide, we will do it in the children’s best interests no matter what other people outside the committee think. And we will come to a really, really strong decision about our advice. 

‘Now of course it is up to ministers as I say to make decisions, it’s not up to JCVI, but we will give some very strong advice. 

‘But there are very strong arguments for vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, and there’s some arguments against as well and it’s very finely balanced.’

Children have only a small risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid and a vanishingly small chance of death, while Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines are associated with rare cases of myocarditis in young people.

The JCVI said in July there was a risk of the heart inflammation in about one in 20,000 young people after being fully immunised with Pfizer’s vaccine. The Moderna jab, which works in a very similar way, is thought to carry the same risk. 

It ruled against recommending the vaccine to healthy children then because the risk of dying from the virus for them is lower than one in a million.  

Professor Calum Semple, a child health expert who sits on SAGE, admitted that vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds was a ‘really tricky decision’. 

But he said one way to reduce the risk of myocarditis and still gain some protection against Covid would be to offer them one dose only. 

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We’ve got a really fine balancing act between a rare side effect – which is very, very rare, which is myocarditis – and the low risk (from Covid) to children themselves. 

‘If however you take into the round the risks of impact on transmission to the wider society and disruption to school, so you take a broader view of the benefit of vaccination, that might shift the decision around vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, but that’s a really difficult judgment.  

‘I would probably go for a single dose of the vaccine for 12 to 15-year-olds, as a one-off – in order to help public health generally, break transmission chains in society. 

‘The rare side effect of myocarditis appears to be associated more with the second dose than the first dose. 

‘So I would probably go down the path of giving one dose only, as a one-off, and then waiting until children are much older before we go for the double jab.’

Another argument for vaccinating children has been to protect them from long Covid – a poorly understood condition that leaves even asymptomatic Covid patients with lingering issues months after the infection.

Previous research suggested as many as half were struck down with long Covid. But the largest and most robust study into long Covid’s prevalence in youngsters found the scale of the condition in children was ‘nothing like’ initially feared.

The University College London research of almost 7,000 youngsters aged 11 to 17 suggested about one in seven have symptoms three months after clearing the initial Covid infection. 

Common ailments included headaches and tiredness but there was no evidence that any of the children had ‘severe’ illness as a result of long Covid. 

Dr Liz Whittaker, one of the main authors of the study, said that long Covid did not appear to be a ‘severe disease’ in young people, adding: ‘Vaccines prevent severe disease.’

She also added that while the jabs offer high protection against severe Covid, they are less effective at preventing transmission. So it’s difficult to know whether [long Covid] could be prevented through vaccinating children or not.’

Meanwhile, Mr Williamson said he will ‘move heaven and earth’ to avoid shutting schools again, but he did not rule out a rise in Covid infections being caused by children going back to class.

The minister also did not exclude classes and assemblies having to take place outside during this academic year amid coronavirus outbreaks in schools.

His comments came as pupils across England and Wales have begun to return to the classroom this week after the summer holidays, and schools in Northern Ireland have reopened.

Schools in Scotland returned a fortnight ago and the reopening is believed to have contributed to a rise in cases north of the border.

Asked if he could rule out school closures again, Mr Williamson told LBC radio: ‘I will move heaven and earth to make sure that we aren’t in a position of having to close schools.’

The minister added that he was ‘absolutely’ confident pupils will get their GCSEs and A-levels at the end of this school year after exams were cancelled for two years in a row due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He told LBC: ‘We’ve had two years where we’ve not been able to run a normal series of exams.

‘I don’t think anyone wants to see a third year of that.

‘We want to get back to normal, not just in terms of what the classroom experience is like but also the exam experience.’

But the Education Secretary did not rule out a rise in infections being caused by schools reopening.

After being asked repeatedly, Mr Williamson told Sky News: ‘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. This is a way of rooting out Covid-19.

‘We’re trying to strike that constant, sensible balance of actually giving children as normal experience in the classroom as possible, but also recognising we’re still dealing with a global pandemic.’

All secondary school and college pupils are being invited to take two lateral flow tests at school, three to five days apart, in England on their return.

Schools and colleges are being encouraged to maintain increased hygiene and ventilation, and secondary school and college pupils in England have been asked to continue to test twice weekly at home.

Mr Williamson did not rule out outdoor classes and assemblies having to take place in the event of outbreaks.

But he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in autumn and winter.’

Schools in England no longer have to keep pupils in year group ‘bubbles’ to reduce mixing and face coverings are no longer advised.

Children do not have to isolate if they come into contact with a positive case of Covid. Instead, they will need to get a PCR test and isolate only if positive.

The medical director of Public Health England (PHE) moved to reassure parents as pupils return to classrooms, saying schools are not the ‘drivers’ or ‘hubs’ of Covid-19 infection in communities.

Dr Yvonne Doyle told BBC Breakfast: ‘There’ll be extra cleaning and hygiene, advice on ventilation (and) the testing is extremely important.’

She added that authorities had anticipated Covid-19 outbreaks as schools reopened, saying they are ‘part of normal practice’.

But Professor Semple said schools are likely to be a ‘greater part of the problem’ when it comes to spread of coronavirus than they previously were, and compared with workplaces where the majority of adults are vaccinated and many continue to work from home. 

As pupils return to classrooms, schools in England can sign up with this year’s external tuition providers through the Government’s National Tutoring Programme (NTP) to offer pupils catch-up support.

The Department for Education (DfE) has said up to six million pupils are set to benefit from catch-up tuition for lost learning over the next three years under a ‘tutoring revolution’ in schools.


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