Senior ministers are said to become increasingly bitter over the failure of government experts to approve the rollout of Covid vaccines for young people under 16.
A Whitehall source said there was “palpable frustration” among government figures with the Joint Vaccination and Immunization Committee (JCVI), which has so far not approved the shot.
Both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid would like to continue vaccinating high school students.
Ministers fear the new academic year will spark a new wave of the virus in the classroom.
This means that children without a shot can experience more hindrance from their education in the autumn and winter.
But the JCVI, which is independent from the government, warned yesterday that a decision on the issue was “finely balanced,” with a senior committee member insisting it should respond to political pressure.
Senior ministers, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Minister Sajid Javid (pictured), would like to continue vaccinating high school students, but the Joint Vaccinations and Immunization Committee has yet to approve them for children under 16
Another said the committee would not be persuaded to vaccinate younger children just because many other countries were now doing so.
France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and the US are among the countries that now offer jabs to children aged 12 to 15. Norway followed yesterday.
UK medical regulators approved the Pfizer shot for use in 12 to 15-year-olds in June, declaring it ‘safe and effective in this age group’.
The Moderna vaccine was also approved last month.
Ministers had hoped to vaccinate children during school holidays to prevent a repeat of the massive disruption in schools in the past 18 months.
However, with schools already going back this week and next week, hundreds of thousands of students will mingle for weeks before a rollout is approved by the JCVI – if it is approved at all.
Ministers fear the new academic year will spark another wave of the virus in the classroom
Last night, a Whitehall source admitted: “There is palpable frustration that this is taking so long. The jabs have been approved for months, other countries have been doing it safely for months – we are becoming an outlier.
In the meantime, we missed the opportunity in the summer and the schools are going back.’
Meanwhile, as a clear sign of teen enthusiasm for the shot, figures show that half of 16- and 17-year-olds have already received a vaccine dose in just four weeks.
It also found that the JCVI is “very likely” to recommend booster shots to millions of older adults in the coming weeks, but members were much more cautious about approving injections for 12 to 15-year-olds.
So far, only younger teens with underlying health conditions can be pricked. And the JCVI announced late Wednesday that it was recommending a “third dose” for 500,000 people with severely suppressed immune systems.
It came as the UK registered 38,154 new cases and a further 178 deaths. Cases in Scotland have soared since schools returned last month, with infections among children now higher than ever.
Government ministers had hoped to vaccinate children during school holidays to prevent a repeat of the massive disruption seen in schools over the past 18 months (stock image)
Downing Street publicly insists that the case is purely for the JCVI. But while another Whitehall source said the JCVI had “did an amazing job” in launching the vaccination program, they acknowledged the time taken by the commission on children was frustrating.
“Everything is in place to roll this out,” the source said. “We just need a decision.”
Over the weekend, Mr Javid said vaccinating all teens would “strengthen our wall of protection.”
The move is also backed by Transport Minister Grant Shapps, who has warned that countries like Malta are already insisting that all people aged 12 and over must be quarantined on arrival unless they are fully vaccinated.
A government source has predicted that uptake among younger children would be as high as 16- and 17-year-olds, if and when the green light is given.
Yesterday, however, the deputy chair of the JCVI, Anthony Harnden, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘There are many, many arguments for and against giving vaccines to 12 to 15 year olds, and we are considering what we as a committee think the best for children.
“And that’s the most important thing: whatever we decide, we’ll do it in the best interests of the children, whatever other people outside the committee think.”
Professor Harnden said it is ultimately “up to ministers” to decide whether children should be vaccinated, but added: “We will be giving very strong advice.”
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle came yesterday to reassure parents and said schools are not the ‘drivers’ of infection in communities.
She said: ‘There will be extra cleaning and hygiene, advice on ventilation (and) testing is hugely important.’
The Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies has warned that it is “most likely” that the number of infections in schools will rise by the end of September, and has urged ministers to come up with a plan to deal with it.
Meanwhile, plans to roll out jabs for under-16s are well underway – pending approval by the JCVI.
It is likely that both parents and children will be asked for permission.
As a GP I would have all three of my children get the vaccine
Comment by Dr. Nighat Arif
Covid vaccines have been a remarkable success, but if we want to improve public safety and return to normal, we need to build on that achievement.
That means not only providing booster shots to maintain their effectiveness – especially in light of new variants – but also, just as crucially, extending the program to children.
At the moment, shots are only offered to people over 12 if they are clinically frail, but I strongly believe that coverage should be extended to a much wider age group, including healthy young people, just like the US, Brazil, China and Germany to do.
Based on hard evidence from around the world, the arguments for this policy are irrefutable.
For starters, it would reduce the severity of the impact of the disease and the likelihood of long-term complications.
Pictured: Dr. Nighat Arif who says she would vaccinate all three of her children
It’s true that children are at the lowest risk of the virus, but my colleagues and I are now seeing a growing number of cases of ‘Long Covid’ in children – which can lead to months of chronic fatigue, shortness of breath, chest tightness and painful headaches .
I am currently dealing with one patient, a 15-year-old boy who – until Covid struck – had only mild asthma, and whose treatment included regular medication and an annual checkup.
Now that he has contracted the virus, he faces a much more difficult near future. As his condition deteriorated, he was hospitalized with pneumonia and even put on a ventilator. If he had been vaccinated, this probably wouldn’t have happened.
In addition to providing individual protection, the inoculation of children would reduce the transmission of the disease to the wider community, help build defensive shields around families, schools and beyond, and reduce the risk of developing new variants.
That would be good news for everyone, especially the most vulnerable adults.
Vaccines for all are the best form of preventive medicine and the surest path to the goal of herd immunity.
I wish I could give them to my three children as a way of mutual protection in our home – a vital concern as my six-year-old son is very vulnerable, having had a liver transplant.
But like all young people under the age of 12 and regardless of the circumstances, he is currently ineligible.
There is far too much lurid, paranoid scaremongering about childhood vaccines.
Ever since Edward Jenner conquered smallpox with the world’s first vaccine in the 18th century, the science of immunization has been well researched and understood.
With a view to improving public health, we are already safely giving children a number of other vaccines from infancy, starting with the Rotavirus shot from just eight weeks, followed by the MMR at one year (with a booster at three years old) and then the flu nose drops that are given every year from two.
So where is the logic to suddenly draw a line on a Covid vaccine? Rather than protecting children, misguided concerns about vaccines can have a devastating impact, as evidenced by fears over the MMR shot in the late 1990s, when it was incorrectly associated with autism.
The fall in vaccinations has led to serious outbreaks of measles and mumps, the latter a disease I thought had been largely eradicated in Britain, and which can have devastating side effects and in rare cases, death.
We cannot allow the same to happen with Covid. That is also not what the general public – more sensible than the anti-vaxxers – wants.
A recent survey by the Office for National Statistics found that 90 percent of parents would “definitely” or “probably” agree to have their child vaccinated.
Aside from the worrying health implications of vaccine hesitancy, there are also the economic and social ramifications.
Not using all possible medical means against Covid means that we have to resort to other methods to contain the disease.
In practice, that will require a return to draconian lockdowns and restrictions, hurting the economy with all the knock-on effects that follow.
The disruption of our children’s education and social relationships has a profound impact on their life chances and, of course, their mental health.
As a society, we should be heading in the exact opposite direction, toward greater freedom – and childhood vaccines can help us do that.
We know that vaccines protect lives and prevent serious illness. Let’s expand its use.
dr. Nighat Arif is a GP in Buckinghamshire and a regular contributor to BBC Breakfast