Covid vaccine advisers not recommending jabs for healthy 12-15 year olds

Tom Clarke reports on what happens now for 12-15 year olds and the Covid vaccines

The government's vaccine advisers have refused to approve Covid jabs for healthy children aged between 12 and 15, saying the health benefits are too marginal to make a definitive decision.

While the Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines have already approved as safe for use in 12 to 17 year olds, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation said the health benefits from vaccination are only marginally greater than the very rare potential side effects.

It said the government should seek further advice from UK's four chief medical officers (CMOs) on the wider impacts of vaccinating that age group before making a decision, given that healthy young people are very unlikely to become severely ill from Covid.

The vaccine advisers said CMOs should consider, for example, the impact on schools and young people’s education, which has been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

But children in this age bracket who have underlying health conditions would benefit from the protection provided by vaccines, the JCVI said, and so the rollout should be extended to the most at-risk children.

It means about 200,000 more children with chronic major heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological conditions will be invited for vaccines.

Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a Covid-19 vaccine, and today we’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or type 1 diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children.

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“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.”

The decision, or lack thereof, comes exactly a week after the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) confirmed preparations were under way to ensure the NHS was ready to offer coronavirus jabs to all 12 to 15-year-olds in England from early September.

The department said they wanted to be "ready to hit the ground running".

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The government had 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.

But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has 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 said the NHS is ready to vaccinate over 12s in schools as soon as a decision on the rollout is made - parental consent will be required before children are immunised.

Additional safety measures in schools will become "more important" if chief medical officers decide not to vaccinate all 12 to 15-year-olds, a teaching union has said.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: "If the decision not to vaccinate is upheld by the chief medical officers, this makes additional safety mitigations in schools all the more important."

In the absence of vaccines, schools will use mass testing to identify and isolate coronavirus cases in order to keep education disruption to a minimum.

Another education union, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was "disappointed" that 12 to 15 year olds would not yet be offered a vaccine.

Geoff Barton, general secretary, said: "We understand that this decision has been made after making an assessment of the balance of risks and with all the available evidence, and we respect that decision.

"Nevertheless, the upshot is that this would make it more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus."

A professor of child health and outbreak medicine at the University of Liverpool said, before the JCVI gave its advice to the government, that the group had a "really tricky decision" to make.

Professor Calum Semple told the BBC: "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."