'There should be no stigma': Vaccines minister defends jabs for all children aged 12-15

13 September 2021, 21:06 | Updated: 14 September 2021, 09:12

The vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was questioned about the decision to vaccinate all 12 to 15 year olds by Nick Ferrari on LBC.
The vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi was questioned about the decision to vaccinate all 12 to 15 year olds by Nick Ferrari on LBC. Picture: LBC

By Daisy Stephens

Nadhim Zahawi has defended the Government's decision to vaccinate all children aged 12 to 15, and said there should be "no stigma" around the programme.

From next week all children in the age bracket will be offered a first dose of the Covid jab, after the Government accepted the advice of the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs).

The vaccines minister told Nick Ferrari on LBC that children would only be able to choose to have the coronavirus vaccine against their parents' wishes following a meeting with a clinician.

He said: "Parental consent is required, but in the rare occasion where there is a difference of opinion between the child and the parent, then the clinician will bring the parent and the child together to try and reach a consensus.

"If that is not possible and the 12-year-old is deemed to be competent to make that decision, then they can have the vaccine. That is a very rare occasion."

Nick grilled the minister, and asked why the Government has made the decision contrary to the recommendation by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).

Mr Zahawi said the JCVI has a very "narrow clinical qualification to look at".

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"When they did look at the healthy 12 to 15 year olds from data from the US and Israel, other countries that have been vaccinating at scale that age group, they came down on the side it is marginally more advantageous to get the vaccine than not get the vaccine, but not enough to recommend a universal programme," he explained.

"They then recommended that we ask the chief medical officers who can look at the wider impact on those same children, not the wider societal impact, but on those 12 to 15 year olds."

He said when they looked at the mental health impact and disruption to education, they came down on the side of offering the vaccine programme to healthy 12 to 15 year olds.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said he was "grateful" for the advice he received, both from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and CMOs, and said the NHS "stands ready" to begin the rollout to this age group.

"I have accepted the recommendation from the Chief Medical Officers to expand vaccination to those aged 12 to 15 - protecting young people from catching Covid-19, reducing transmission in schools and keeping pupils in the classroom," said Mr Javid.

"I am very grateful for the expert advice I have received from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and UK Chief Medical Officers.

"Our outstanding NHS stands ready to move forward with rolling out the vaccine to this group with the same sense of urgency we've had at every point in our vaccination programme."

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Speaking in the Commons on Monday evening, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said: "We will now move with the same sense of urgency we've had at every point in our vaccination programme."

He added that parental consent will be needed for vaccinations of the age group but children can overrule parents who do not want them to get the jab if deemed "competent".

The CMOs unanimously agreed to recommend to ministers that children in this age group receive one dose of the Pfizer jab.

Parental consent will be sought prior to vaccination and the NHS is now preparing to deliver a schools-based vaccination programme, with "alternative provision" for those who are home schooled, in secure services or specialist mental health settings.

The first invitations will be sent out next week.

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The JCVI had advised against giving 12 to 15-year-olds the vaccine on health grounds alone because of the only "marginal" benefit.

But it was then the job of the CMOs to consider the other advantages of vaccination, such as reduced disruption to education and the mental health benefits of being able to keep schools open.

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The UK's CMOs set out the reasoning behind their advice in a press conference on Monday afternoon, with England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty saying the decision was about "balancing risk and benefit".

"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," Prof Whitty said.

He said this was "most apparent in areas of deprivation".

Vaccination "will reduce education disruption" but "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.

Child health expert warns against stigmatising non-vaccinated

In their advice to the Government, the UK's CMOs said they were recommending vaccines on "public health grounds" and it was "likely vaccination will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 in schools".

They added: "Covid-19 is a disease which can be very effectively transmitted by mass spreading events, especially with Delta variant.

"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 will also reduce the chance an individual child gets Covid-19. This means vaccination is likely to reduce (but not eliminate) education disruption."

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.