Covid: NHS 'ready' to vaccinate over-12s in schools in 'very near future', Gavin Williamson says

Gavin Williamson said the NHS is ready to rollout Covid jabs in schools as soon as the JCVI decides the appropriate strategy. Credit: PA

The NHS is "ready" to vaccinate over-12s in schools, the education secretary has said, adding he is hoping for the rollout to begin in the "very near future".

Gavin Williamson insisted children would be returning to "a pre-pandemic sense of what education was like" when they go back to school in the coming days, despite very few of them having been vaccinated against coronavirus.

The government has been criticised for not offering coronavirus vaccinations to over-12s during the summer holidays ahead of their return to classrooms, which is expected to cause a new spike in Covid-19 infections.

Asked if he'd like over-12s to be offered vaccine appointments immediately, the education secretary said the government is waiting for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) to provide its advice before making a decision.

"I'm certainly hopeful that we'll be hearing from JCVI in the very near future," he said.

He added: "The NHS are very used to delivering a vaccination programme in schools... but we're waiting for that scientific and medical advice - and the views of JCVI - but we're ready to go when that moment comes."

Williamson: We hope to hear from the JCVI in the very near future...

In Scotland, where schools reopened two weeks ago, there has been a sharp rise in coronavirus cases, however it is not clear whether that has been caused by more testing or by increased social contact.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: "It's important to point out that case numbers are rising across the UK just now, but after a period of slower increases in Scotland the rise here is particularly sharp at the moment. "That is possibly, at least in part, a reflection of the fact that our schools return earlier, with the increased interactions that come with that."

A professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool said it appears the JCVI are "having a tough time" deciding a strategy for vaccinating school students, with youngsters already very unlikely to become severely ill from Covid.

Professor Calum Semple told the BBC the JCVI has a "really tricky decision" to make.

"We've got a really fine balancing act between a rare side effect - which is very, very rare, which is myocarditis [inflammation of the heart muscle] - 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."

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The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said that if the JCVI recommends that 12 to 15-year-olds should be offered the vaccine “we need to be ready to hit the ground running”.

“That is what parents across the country would rightly expect us to do, to keep their children safe".

It comes after a new study of 7,000 children aged 11-17 - the largest study yet on Long Covid in children, found huge numbers could suffer.

It suggested as many as one-in-seven children who get coronavirus could have symptoms - including headache, tiredness and a loss of taste and smell - almost four months later.

Mr Williamson, who has previously said children would require parental consent before being vaccinated, said over-12s will have an additional layer of protection once they've been jabbed.

"Personally, as a parent, I think it's incredibly important for them to have that protection," he said, but it's right that parents are able to choose whether their child is vaccinated.

Vaccines will give an "immense amount of confidence, not just to teachers but for parents and children alike", he added.

But most school children will not be vaccinated when they return to the classroom.

Instead, daily mass testing will ensure there is as little disruption to education as possible, Mr Williamson said.

"You're not going to have the same level of restrictions, you're not going to have the bubbles in classrooms, children will not be required to wear masks."