Parents 'to keep pupils at home to avoid them getting Covid jab'

Top government scientists urge ministers to ignore JVCI and push ahead with vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds as parents vow to keep pupils at home to stop them being ‘peer pressured’ into getting jab

  • Prof Peter Openshaw said jabbing children is essential ‘to prevent Covid surges’  
  • Campaign group UsForThem warned parents will pull children from schools
  • Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted decision on plan has not been made 

Health experts are urging the Government to push ahead with plans to vaccinate all 12 to 15 year olds against Covid-19.  

It comes after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) this week decided against backing the plan because the disease presents such a low risk to younger teenagers.

But Professor Chris Whitty and the UK’s three other chief medical officers are reviewing the wider benefits of vaccinating the age group, such as minimising school absences, and are expected to present their findings within days. 

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said Sunday that if the chief medical officers recommend vaccination then it is ‘absolutely’ the right thing to do, but he said he does not want to ‘pre-determine’ that.  

The Government is awaiting their advice before making a final decision but ministers and Health Secretary Sajid Javid are reportedly keen to authorise a wider rollout.

Speaking on Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday, Mr Zahawi said: ‘We have not made any decisions, so we haven’t decided not to listen to the experts.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi insisted Sunday that the Government has yet to make a decision on the child vaccine rollout

‘On the contrary, all four ministers, the Secretary of State, Sajid Javid, and his fellow ministers in the devolved administrations have agreed to ask the chief medical officers to convene expert groups, including the JCVI being in that, to be able to recommend which way we should go on healthy 12 to 15-year-olds.’

He said parents of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds will be asked for consent if coronavirus jabs are approved for their children.

‘I can give that assurance, absolutely,’ he said.

It came as Professor Peter Openshaw, of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the Government, told BBC Breakfast he was ‘a little surprised’ at the JCVI’s decision to not back the rollout among children.  

‘We do know the virus is circulating very widely amongst this age group, and that if we’re going to be able to get the rates down and also prevent further surges of infection perhaps later in the winter, then this is the group that needs to become immune,’ he said.

‘And the best way to become immune is through vaccination, and there’s never been as much information as this in the past. 

‘To think there hasn’t been enough research is completely wrong.’

Professor Peter Openshaw (pictured), of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the Government, told BBC Breakfast he was ‘a little surprised’ at the JCVI’s decision to not back the rollout among children

He added: ‘To my mind, the public health benefit is very, very important, and we have to take the wider view that unless we do get infection rates down amongst this particular part of the population, it will be very, very hard to prevent further large recurrences (of Covid-19).

‘I would say that teenagers are often amongst the most altruistic and the most generous people in society. 

‘They often think very deeply about these moral and ethical issues and they want to protect others as well.

‘So I would think that a lot of teenagers, actually, if they see the evidence in the round, would prefer to be vaccinated.’   

It comes as family campaign groups warned that some parents are planning on pulling their children from school during any proposed vaccination drive in a bid to stop them being ‘peer-pressured’ into getting the jab.

Campaign group UsForThem said there is a ‘great concern’ among families after it was suggested that children as young as 12 could decide for themselves whether or not to get the jab. 

Molly Kingsley, co-founder of the parent campaign group UsForThem, warned some parents will simply pull their children from school. 

She told the Telegraph: ‘We have seen an incredible amount of concern among parents about the suggestion that parental consent for children as young as 12 may either be overridden or not needed if you are relying on Gillick competence.

Campaign group UsForThem said there is a ‘great concern’ among families after it was suggested that children as young as 12 could decide for themselves whether or not to get the jab (file photo)

Health Secretary Sajid Javid is reportedly planning on rolling out the vaccine to all 12 to 15 year olds, despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) recommending the jab for higher risk children only 

‘We have heard a lot of parents saying that if it happens they will keep their children off school for the duration of any vaccination programme.

‘Were vaccination of children to happen on school premises without fully respecting the need for parental consent it would really prejudice parents’ trust in schools.’

It comes as guidance circulated to NHS trusts says most 12 to 15-year-olds should be deemed ‘Gillick competent to provide [their] own consent’ over jabs.

‘Gillick competent’ stems from a 1985 legal decision which ruled that a teenage girl could obtain contraception without her parents’ involvement.

It suggests a parent’s permission may not be needed to give a pupil the vaccine – although the vaccines minister insisted Sunday that it would be required.  

While some parents remain concerned about their children receiving the jab, teacher unions have warned that not vaccinating healthy children could see chaos this autumn if it leads to a rise in Covid cases.  

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the decision will ‘make it more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus’.

Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist on the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: ‘We need to take into consideration the wider effect that Covid might have on children and their educational and developmental achievements.

‘Because if you think about it, in the UK now, it’s difficult to say exactly how many children haven’t been infected but it’s probably about half of them, so that’s about six million children.

‘That’s a long way to go if we allow infection just to run through the population, that’s a lot of children who will be infected and that will be a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months.’

Prof Edmunds said it was likely that the return of schools and greater numbers of workers returning to offices will cause an increase in cases.

He added: ‘It’s with a wider reopening of society that I think we’d expect to see, now summer’s over, organisations will be starting to expect their employees back at work in the office, and I think that employees want to go back to the office, and all of that will add to increased contact rates and increased risk in society.

‘So I think we will see increased cases now in the coming months.’ 

Q&A: Why the JCVI advised against a mass vaccine rollout among 12-15 year olds

So what happened this week?

After weeks of pressure for a ruling, the Government’s independent advisers on vaccines, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), decided not to recommend the mass rollout of jabs to all 12 to 15-year-olds.

Why didn’t they recommend the vaccine?

The JCVI looks solely at the medical grounds for vaccinating children. Because children are extremely unlikely to get ill with Covid-19, any side-effects become more important compared with adults. The JCVI said the decision was ‘very finely balanced’. It said that while the health benefits of the vaccine probably did outweigh any harms, the margin was too small to be sure and there was ‘insufficient’ evidence for a mass rollout. Fewer than 30 under-18s have died of Covid in the UK.

What do we know about side-effects?

A small number of children have developed cases of heart inflammation called myocarditis after the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. This is extremely rare – affecting between three and 17 teenagers per one million first doses given out. This rises to 12 to 34 more for every million second doses. The condition mainly affects teenage boys after the second dose. Most youngsters make a full recovery. But experts are still uncertain about the long-term consequences.

Did the committee recommend the jab be rolled out to any children?

Yes. Currently, around 150,000 severely disabled 12 to 15-year-olds with conditions including Down’s syndrome get the vaccine. Yesterday, the JCVI said this group should be expanded to include about another 200,000 children with underlying health conditions such as type 1 diabetes and sickle cell disease.

So what happens now? Could healthy 12 to 15 year-olds still get vaccinated?

Potentially, yes. The JCVI does not consider the wider societal impacts of vaccination. Given the enormous disruption to education during the pandemic, the committee urged UK health ministers to seek further advice on the broader impact of vaccination. Therefore the buck has essentially been passed to the UK’s four chief medical officers. Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote to Professor Chris Whitty asking him to consider a broader base of evidence.

How will a decision now be made?

Professor Whitty and health experts will review evidence showing how many children may need time off school due to outbreaks. Sources are adamant children will not be vaccinated to protect adults and reduce a potential winter wave. The process is expected to take a few days and advice will be presented to ministers. A final decision could come at the end of next week.

Why is the UK taking a different approach to other countries?

France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, the US and Norway are among the nations now offering jabs to children aged 12 to 15. Experts on the JCVI take a ‘precautionary approach’ that only recommends the vaccine to those children with underlying health conditions, rather than a one-size-fits-all strategy.

If a rollout is approved will parents get a say?

Parents’ written consent will be required before their children are given a vaccine. The NHS is ready to ‘hit the ground running’ if vaccines are approved for schoolchildren. Last week they were told to recruit and train staff to go into schools to give pupils Covid jabs.

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