Booster jabs and Covid vaccines for 12 to 15 year olds: What's the hold up?

Some ministers are getting impatient with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.

There is frustration about the group’s decision today, not to recommend a universal roll out of the vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds, but it is not just that.

One member of the Cabinet said to me they thought it was ridiculous that 17-year-olds were only being offered the first jab, when 18 year olds could have both.

And there is also the question of boosters – with many older people desperate to get another level of protection as soon as possible.

Why the caution from the JCVI?

Many people instinctively want children vaccinated for the so-called “greater good”. They believe that limiting the spread among children will ultimately protect older people at much higher risk if they contract Covid.

But I’m told that is not what the JCVI has been asked to look at.

The decision, they say, is based only on the health benefits and risks for the children themselves.

And on the more simple question – 'what do vaccinations mean for children’s health?' - the calculation is quite tight.

On the one hand, Covid is relatively low risk for young people – with only two in a million healthy children needing intensive care treatment for the virus.

On the other, there is a tiny risk of children who receive the vaccination developing myocarditis – a form of health inflammation, something the group thinks needs more research.

Which is why the JCVI is arguing that while there is a marginal benefit to vaccinating children on health terms – it’s not enough to recommend a universal roll out.

Other impacts need to also be considered like the educational impact of such a programme, they add.

However, under political pressure they’ve arguably passed the buck – giving Sajid Javid, the health secretary, a get out clause.

Usually it would be his duty under law to try to fulfill the JCVI’s recommendations, but this time he can ask others – the chief medical officers – for more advice.

Meanwhile, there is the question of booster jabs - with some people asking why aren’t we emulating Israel?

It was there that an alarming surge in cases showed the world that mass vaccination only slows, but does not stop the spread and harm caused by the Delta variant.

In response, the country began rolling out third doses as fast as it possibly could – and with positive results.

From late July, over 60s who were at least five months out from their second vaccination were offered their third, with eligibility falling to those in their 50s and then 40s over the summer.

The country’s minister of health, Nitzan Horowitz, called it a “critical time”, adding: “We’re in a race against the pandemic.”

The former health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, thinks the same is true in the UK, arguing that it is time for us to copy Israel where the boosters appear to be pushing down hospital admissions.

Speaking to the BBC, he said he understands why JCVI scientists are taking their time but that politicians should “read the runes” and green-light boosters before the committee’s final decision - which could come next week.

Should the booster jab programme go ahead?

When I spoke to someone familiar with the JCVI’s decision-making, they argued that the group had been more “sanguine” about booster jabs because while Israel had administered its first and second doses with a 3-week gap, the advice was changed in the UK at the turn of the year – to a longer 12 week one.

Although it was controversial at the time to push people’s second doses back into late February, March and beyond, now it means the advantage of longer immunity that could well last well into the autumn.

But what it doesn’t account for is the large group of people who got their vaccines right at the start, when we did still have the 3 week policy.

In fact, looking at the data by the January 31, 457,779 second vaccinations had been given.

That is almost half a million people – many of whom will be over 80 as they were rightly prioritised in the first round of vaccines.

Listen to our coronavirus podcast: Can children defy their parents if jabs are rolled out to under-16s?

Now, almost eight months on from any protection, they will be extremely nervous about the possibility of waning immunity.

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said this group “are likely to be the most vulnerable and will anxious and worried as they wait for news about booster jabs”.

He added: “Ministers must end this uncertainty and get on rolling out these jabs to all those who need it”

The hope will be for a JCVI decision next week- expected after the scientists see the results of the Cov-Boost study examining this issue - that will place this group at the top of the list.

That green-light will go someway to easing frustrations among ministers.