Whitty: Covid vaccines for children 'not silver bullet' for limiting school disruption

With children now offered the vaccine, what do they think about getting the jab? ITV News Health Editor Emily Morgan reports

Vaccinating 12-15 year olds will reduce disruption in schools, England's Chief Medical Officer has said, but warned jabs alone won't be enough to keep the education system working through the autumn and winter months.

At a press conference on Monday, the four Chief Medical Officer's (CMOs) of the UK advised ministers to offer the Pfizer vaccine to children aged between 12 and 15.

Professor Chris Whitty said they had tried to achieve a “middle view of where we think the profession is at this point in time”.

Prof Whitty said the CMOs had looked at the impact of Covid-19 on disruption to education.

The evidence they heard was that “the disruption in education which has happened over the last period since March 2020 has been extraordinarily difficult for children and had a big impact on health, mental health and public health”.

Watch UK chief medical officers lead Covid briefing on recommendation to vaccinate 12-15-year-olds

“This is most apparent in areas of deprivation,” he said.

Professor Whitty also warned the pandemic is not over and said: "Anybody who believes the big risk of Covid is all in the past has not understood where we are going to head as go into autumn and winter, where there will continue to be challenges and pressure on the NHS".

He said vaccination “will reduce education disruption” but “we do not think this is a panacea, it is not a silver bullet”.

“We think it is an important and potentially useful additional tool to help reduce the public health impacts that come through educational disruption,” he said.

The CMOs acknowledged vaccinating children had marginal health benefits but that was still better than no benefit.

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They also said they had based the decision purely on the benefits of the age group being considered and did not factor in how vaccinating children will impact their parents of other groups in society.

The decision takes into account the impact of the pandemic on children’s education, as well as the risks to their mental health from missing school.

Scotland’s chief medical officer Gregor Smith said parents and children needed to understand that although the benefit was “marginal”, it was still better to have the jab.

“Informed consent in this context is really important, particularly when there is … a marginal benefit,” Dr Smith, who is a GP, said.

“We should not mistake that marginal benefit for no benefit at all, that’s the first really important point in this.”

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and the UK’s chief medical officers had found there was “benefit both directly and indirectly to being vaccinated over being unvaccinated”.

Dr Smith said it was important to use “straightforward language” in order to set out “in very child-friendly terms” the advantages of vaccination.

Professor Whitty said there are currently no plans to vaccinate children under 12.

At the press conference, the advisors denied there was a conflict between JCVI and the UK's CMOs, despite the differing advice from the two groups.

Credit: PA

Professor Wei Shen Lim, of the JCVI, added: “I want to stress that this by no means there is any conflict between the advice provided by JCVI and the advice and the decision made by the CMOs to the Secretary of State.”

The move means that around three million children could be eligible for the jab and comes despite the JCVI deciding not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds.

It is expected the vaccinations will be given through schools.

Health secretary Sajid Javid sought a second opinion from the CMOs after the JCVI said the health benefits of vaccinating the age group were too marginal to make a definitive decision.

In their advice to the government, the medical officers said they were recommending vaccines on “public health grounds” and it was “likely vaccination will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 in schools”.

“Having a significant proportion of pupils vaccinated is likely to reduce the probability of such events which are likely to cause local outbreaks in, or associated with, schools."

They added that they consider education “one of the most important drivers of improved public health and mental health”.

Even though the CMOs have said teenagers should be offered a jab, the final decision on whether to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds will be made by the government.

“We have received advice from the four UK Chief Medical Officers on offering Covid-19 vaccination to young people aged 12-15. We will set out the government’s decision shortly,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said.

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The JCVI announced over a week ago that it was widening the Covid vaccination programme to more children aged between 12 and 15 who have underlying health conditions.

However, it did not recommend vaccination all 12 to 15-year-olds, despite ministers indicating they favoured a broader programme and pressing for a quick decision.

The JCVI said as coronavirus presents only a very low risk to healthy children, the marginal benefit of vaccination to their own health is not great enough to support mass vaccination from a purely health perspective.

The CMOs have asked for the JCVI now to look at whether second doses should be given to children and young people aged 12 to 15 once more data comes through internationally.

This will not be before the spring term.

Professor Neil Ferguson, whose modelling was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020 said vaccinating teenagers should be a priority for increasing the wider population's immunity to coronavirus.

The scientist, from Imperial College London, said experts were seeing “slow increases in case numbers, hospitalisations and deaths” in the UK.

Boris Johnson said "wait and see" when asked about the prospect of vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds.

He told BBC Radio 4 that, in the absence of social distancing measures, “we are reliant on immunity building up in the population”.He added: “That happens two ways – one through vaccination and one through people getting infected and so the faster we can roll our additional vaccination, the better in terms of stopping people getting severely ill but also in reducing transmission.” He said the UK had been leading Europe in vaccinations until recently, but other countries such as Spain, Portugal, France, Italy and Ireland “have got higher vaccination levels than us and that’s largely because they have rolled out vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds faster than us."

The NHS and schools in England have already been asked to prepare to roll out vaccines for all 12 to 15-year-olds in the event that the CMOs recommend the programme.