Covid vaccines to be offered to healthy 12 to 15-year-olds, Chief medics decide

13 September 2021, 14:00 | Updated: 13 September 2021, 16:59

By Daisy Stephens and Will Taylor

Coronavirus vaccines should be rolled out to healthy 12 to 15-year olds, the UK's Chief Medical Officers have decided, with all children in that age group to be offered one dose.

It means more than three million children should be eligible for the jab.

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".

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: "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."

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The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) previously said Covid-19 presents a very low risk for healthy children and vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.

As a result they decided not to recommend the jab on health grounds alone.

But they suggested that the wider issues, such as education, should be taken into consideration and examined by CMOs.

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.

Children in that age group should be offered one dose of the Pfizer jab, and it is expected the jabs will be given through schools.

Prof Chris Whitty told a press conference the decision was based on the benefits to children of that age, rather than wider society.

He said the chief medical officers "fully agree with" the assessments made by the MHRA medical regulator and the JCVI on the issue.

"We have not gone over any of their data again," he said.

The impact of Covid-19 on disruption to education was a key consideration, he reiterated.

"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.

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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.

The CMOs think a single dose will reduce significantly the chance of a young person getting Covid and passing the virus on.

After seeking advice from a range of experts, including medical colleges, the CMOs said they consider education "one of the most important drivers of improved public health and mental health".

They added: "The effects of disrupted education, or uncertainty, on mental health are well recognised.

"There can be lifelong effects on health if extended disruption to education leads to reduced life chances.

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"Whilst full closures of schools due to lockdowns is much less likely to be necessary in the next stages of the Covid-19 epidemic, UK CMOs expect the epidemic to continue to be prolonged and unpredictable.

"Local surges of infection, including in schools, should be anticipated for some time. Where they occur, they are likely to be disruptive."

The NHS in England had 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.

The JCVI has already recommended that children and young people aged 12 to 17 with specific underlying health conditions, and children and young people who are aged 12 years and over who are household contacts of people who are immunocompromised are offered two doses of a vaccine.

The Welsh and Scottish governments also say they are considering the advice from the CMO's and will make decisions shortly.

A Welsh Government spokesperson said: "Welsh ministers will be carefully considering the advice received today from the four Chief Medical Officers, alongside the earlier advice from the JCVI before deciding whether to proceed with a vaccination programme for 12-15 year olds."

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Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has thanked Chief Medical Officer Dr Gregor Smith and the other three UK Chief Medical Officers for their advice, which was commissioned by all four health ministers.

He said:"After consideration with clinical and public health leaders from all four nations, [the CMOs] have agreed the additional likely benefits of reducing educational disruption, in addition to the benefits identified by the JCVI, provide sufficient extra advantage to justify the offer of vaccination to this group.

"Health ministers are now considering this advice and we will make a decision as soon as possible.

"In the meantime I want to thank Dr Gregor Smith and the other three UK CMOs for their time and careful consideration of this issue."