Scientists and ministers were at war today over whether the UK should be routinely vaccinating children against Covid now that the majority of the West has green-lit the plans.
British advisers are resisting growing pressure to roll out jabs to healthy 12 to 15-year-olds despite the US, France, Spain, Italy, Canada, Norway and the Netherlands all pressing ahead with the move.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — an independent body which advises the UK Government on the Covid jab roll-out — claims it’s still not clear if the benefits outweigh the risks.
Experts pushing back against the plans today argued that it would be ‘ethically dubious’ to jab children solely to protect adults, because Covid itself poses such a tiny risk to youngsters.
Others believe it is better for children to catch Covid and recover to develop natural immunity than to be reliant on protection from vaccines, which studies suggest wanes in months.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline: ‘It is one thing to say have a vaccine to protect your health, but quite another thing to persuade you to have a vaccine to protect my health. One is entirely ethical and the other is dubious.’
And Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the same university, said natural infection could be a ‘a better first step in the lifelong co-existence’ with the virus than rolling out the jabs.
But the move to jab healthy kids for Covid has been backed by several experts who warn that letting the virus rip through schools could result in more disruptions to education and force lockdown restrictions to be rolled back.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline today that he would feel comfortable vaccinating children so long as their parents consented.
He said the wider benefits to keeping schools open and infection rates low outweighed any small risks of side effects from the jabs.
And in a letter written to the Education Secretary today, a group of scientists said the wider effects curbs would have on children’s learning, health and wellbeing meant it was ‘reckless’ to send secondary children to classes unvaccinated.
The JCVI is believed to be concerned about the small risk of heart inflammation in young people.
This graph shows the number of first doses dished out by age group. The NHS publishes age groups as periods of five years, and groups all those under 18 together. It shows more than 620,000 have already been inoculated among under-18s
Dr Simon Clarke (left), a microbiologist at Reading University, told MailOnline today that children should be vaccinated ‘with their parents’ consent’ because the benefits outweighed the risk of side-effects. He pointed to other countries where the jab has been rolled out to the age group with no safety issues. SAGE adviser Professor Calum Semple has said children should be inoculated in order to avoid further disruption to their education
Latest estimates from a symptom-tracking app suggested under-18s had the second highest number of Covid cases in the country (blue line). Only 18 to 35-year-olds had a higher number of Covid cases (orange line). That is despite schools in England, Wales and Northern Ireland only starting to go back this week. The data is from the ZOE Covid Symptom Study
Latest Public Health England data showed Covid cases are rising fastest among 10 to 19-year-olds (grey line) and 20 to 29-year-olds (green line). Approving Covid vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds would likely help curb the spread of the virus in the age group, scientists in favour of the move add
Scientists were at war over vaccinating children against Covid today. Professor David Livermore (left) says it is ‘plausible’ that immunity from natural infection could last longer for children but Professor Devi Sridhar (right) says the virus could rip through the country again
Children have only a small risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid and a vanishingly small chance of death, while the jabs are associated with rare cases of myocarditis in young people.
The JCVI said in July there was a risk of the heart inflammation in about one in 20,000 young people after being fully immunised with Pfizer’s vaccine.
The Moderna jab, which works in a very similar way, is thought to carry the same risk.
The JCVI ruled against recommending the vaccine to healthy children then because the risk of dying from the virus for them is lower than one in a million.
WHAT ARE THE PROS AND CONS OF VACCINATING CHILDREN?
The main argument in favour of vaccinating children is in order to prevent them keeping the virus in circulation long enough for it to transmit back to adults.
Experts fear that unvaccinated children returning to classrooms in September could lead to a boom in cases among people in the age group, just as immunity from jabs dished out to older generations earlier in the year begins to wane.
This could trigger another wave of the virus if left unchecked, with infection levels triggering more hospitalisations and deaths than seen during the summer.
Avoiding long Covid in children
While the risk of serious infection from Covid remains low in most children, scientists are still unsure of the long-term effects the virus may have on them.
Concerns have been raised in particular about the incidence of long Covid — the little understood condition when symptoms persist for many more weeks than normal — in youngsters.
A study released last night by King’s College London showed fewer than two per cent of children who develop Covid symptoms continue to suffer with them for more than eight weeks.
Just 25 of the 1,734 children studied — 0.01 per cent — suffered symptoms for longer than a year.
Extremely rare incidences of a rare heart condition have been linked to the Pfizer vaccine in youngsters.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) in the US — where 9million 12- to 17-year-olds have already been vaccinated — shows there is around a one in 14,500 to 18,000 chance of boys in the age group developing myocarditis after having their second vaccine dose.
This is vanishingly small. For comparison, the chance of finding a four-leaf clover is one in 10,000, and the chance of a woman having triplets is one in 4,478.
The risk is higher than in 18- to 24-year-olds (one in 18,000 to 22,000), 25- to 29-year-olds (one in 56,000 to 67,000) and people aged 30 and above (one in 250,000 to 333,000). But, again, this is very low.
Britain’s drug regulator the MHRA lists the rare heart condition as a very rare side-effect of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
They said: ‘There have been very rare reports of myocarditis and pericarditis (the medical term for the condition) occurring after vaccination. These are typically mild cases and individuals tend to recover within a short time following standard treatment and rest.’
More than four times as many hospitalisations were prevented as there were cases of myocarditis caused by the vaccine in 12- to 17-year-olds, the health body’s data show.
Jabs should be given to other countries
Experts have also claimed it would be better to donate jabs intended for teenagers in the UK to other countries where huge swathes of the vulnerable population remain unvaccinated.
Not only would this be a moral move but it is in the UK’s own interest because the virus will remain a threat to Britain as long as it is rampant anywhere in the world.
Most countries across the globe are lagging significantly behind the UK in terms of their vaccine rollout, with countries in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America remaining particularly vulnerable.
Jabs could be better used vaccinating older people in those countries, and thus preventing the virus from continuing to circulate globally and mutate further, than the marginal gains to transmission Britain would see if children are vaccinated, experts argue.
Professor David Livermore, from the University of East Anglia, has said: ‘Limited vaccine supplies would be far better used in countries and regions with large vulnerable elderly populations who presently remain unvaccinated — Australia, much of South East Asia and Latin America, as well as Africa.’
Fewer than 300 children have been hospitalised with Covid in England since the pandemic began and all but around 20 had underlying health issues. No healthy child is believed to have died from Covid in the UK.
Professor Hunter said today he was against vaccinating children, although he had faith that whatever decision the JCVI comes to will have been the most informed.
He told MailOnline: ‘The issue around whether we should be vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds is whether there is enough vaccine to go around people who are vulnerable worldwide.’
Professor Hunter added that as the direct benefit of vaccines to children was small because Covid is a mild illness for the overwhelming majority of them.
He said he would prefer to see the doses shipped to developing nations which are struggling to get first doses to vulnerable people.
And he raised doubts about whether it was ethical to vaccinate children against a mild disease in the first place.
‘If we are going to be vaccinating these children it has got to be in their interest, not in ours,’ he said.
‘It is one thing to say have a vaccine to protect your health, but quite another thing to persuade you to have a vaccine to protect my health. One is entirely ethical and the other is dubious.’
Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, said last week that the world will need to live with Covid for years if not decades — so having a generation of children with natural immunity would help prevent cases spiralling later down the line.
He said natural infection could be a ‘a better first step in the lifelong co-existence’ with the virus than rolling out the jabs.
He added: ‘There is no direct reason to vaccinate children and adolescents against Covid. They are extremely unlikely to suffer severe disease if infected.
‘Rare but serious side effects have been associated with the vaccines, including blood clots and myocarditis. For older adults and the vulnerable, these are small hazards compared with those from Covid infection, and being vaccinated is obviously prudent.
‘But for children the risk/benefit ratio is far less clear, and may reverse. The JCVI initially were against vaccinating children on this logic and have provided no clear reason for a change of view.
‘Taking these three points together I can see no good reason to vaccinate under-18s, let alone 12-year-olds.’
And Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, told MailOnline vaccinating children would ‘use up’ Britain’s supply of jabs designated for boosters for the clinically vulnerable this winter.
Professor Spector said while vaccinating would reduce cases ‘in an ideal world’, in the immediate term it could take up supply intended for booster shots to older, more vulnerable people who’s own immunity from vaccines given earlier in the year may be on the wane.
He added: ‘With vaccinating children you are going to reduce numbers of infections, but if you do that that means you use up your boosters and so you risk more deaths and hospitalisations at the other end of the spectrum.
‘In the ideal world I would be in favour of doing both [booster shots for the elderly and vaccines for over-12s] but I definitely think we should be giving boosters to kids that have had natural infections.’
But an equal number of scientists say that vaccinating children would have indirect benefits to them, such as keeping them in education and avoiding future lockdowns which took a toll on young people’s mental health.
A group of 12 scientists on Independent SAGE – a group which has attacked the Government for not being strict enough in controlling the virus – wrote to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today to call for children to receive the vaccine for exactly that reason.
In the letter published in the BMJ they argued that policies in England mean there will soon be a large population who are ‘susceptible’ to the virus mixing in crowded spaces with ‘hardly any mitigations’.
They said children have suffered ‘significant harms’ on their education and wellbing in the pandemic and added: ‘Allowing mass infection of children is therefore reckless.’
Earlier school reopenings in Scotland and the US have shown that a lack of ‘adequate mitigations’ is likely to lead to the virus spreading among children, which could further disrupt learning with significant absences due to student and staff illness, they said.
‘England’s policies mean that we will soon have a large susceptible population with high prevalence of infection mixing in crowded environments with hardly any mitigations.’
Other signatories include members of the Parent SafeEdForAll group and the National Education Union.
Dr Clarke told MailOnline: ‘As long as the data that exists is that there is no greater harm from giving children jabs then children should get vaccinated, with the caveat that there is parental choice.
‘There have been suggestions that the Americans, the Irish, care less about their children than we do — of course they don’t. They are very sensitive about this issue as well.
‘I see no evidence that there is a problem with vaccinating children.’
He said the decision not to inoculate children before they returned to school was a ‘missed window of opportunity’ because the jabs could have reduced transmission of the virus.
SAGE adviser Professor Calum Semple, from Liverpool University, echoed the scientists views last week, saying that without vaccines children faced yet more ‘disruption’ to their education in the new academic year.
Covid cases in Scotland soared 170% in the fortnight after schools went back, official data shows — amid fears the rest of UK is next
Scotland’s Covid cases soared by more than two and a half times in the fortnight after schools went back from the summer break, official figures showed today — in a clear warning sign to the rest of the country.
The Office for National Statistics’ weekly surveillance report estimated 69,500 Scots, or one in 75 people, were infected with the virus on any given day in the week to August 27, up 170 per cent.
In England infections have plateaued but remain stubbornly high with the ONS estimating 766,100 people had Covid last week or one in 70, barely a change from the previous seven-day spell.
Experts fear infections could spiral as children returned to classrooms in England, Wales and Northern Ireland this week.
The UK’s vaccine advisory panel is being lobbied hard by ministers, politicians and some scientists to give the green light to rolling out the vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds but it has so far resisted the calls.
Britain is becoming an international outlier with France, the US, Canada, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands all already administering jabs to over-12s. Last night Norway became the latest country to OK the move.
But some experts say letting children get Covid naturally is a better way to create immunity because the virus itself poses such a low risk to them, whereas the vaccines come with dangerous side effects in rare cases.
The spike in Scotland has also led to growing calls for No10’s vaccine advisory body to recommend a mass booster campaign. But it could be weeks before it is signed off.
The Liverpool University expert told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘If you treat children the same way you do with adults, where if you have got double vaccination you no longer need to isolate, that would then allow us to have schools carrying on without such disruption.
‘I think we need to look at vaccinating these children not just as an individual benefit but a benefit to the root, a benefit to the whole of society and school and the education system.’
Professor Devi Sridhar, a public health expert at Edinburgh University, said last week that children should get vaccines to stop the Delta variant ‘flying through’ schools as they reopen.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said in June that he backed vaccinating children to avoid any further disruption to their education.
Clinical studies show that vaccines cut the risk of the virus spreading between people, but real-world data suggests they may only reduce this by as much as half.
For comparison, jabs drastically cut the risk of someone being hospitalised or dying from the virus. This is already vanishingly small for children.
Other scientists are, however, more skeptical about offering vaccines to the age group.
A Whitehall source said there was ‘palpable frustration’ among Government figures with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which has so far not approved the jab.
Both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid are said to be keen to get on with vaccinating secondary school children.
Ministers fear the new academic year will trigger a fresh wave of the virus in classrooms. This means that without a jab, children could face more disruption to their education throughout autumn and winter.
But the JCVI, which is independent of Government, yesterday warned that a decision on the issue was ‘finely balanced’, with one senior committee member bristling at the idea that it should respond to political pressure.
Another said the committee would not be bounced into vaccinating younger children just because many other countries were now doing so.
Last night one 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 have missed the window of opportunity in the summer and the schools are going back.’
Publicly, Downing Street insists the matter is purely for the JCVI. But while another Whitehall source said the JCVI had ‘done a great job’ at the start of the vaccination programme, they acknowledged the length of time taken by the committee over children was frustrating.
‘Everything is in place to get this rolled out,’ the source said. ‘We just need a decision.’
Speaking at the weekend, Mr Javid said vaccinating all teenagers would ‘solidify our wall of protection’.
The move is also backed by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who has warned that countries like Malta are already insisting all over-12s must quarantine on arrival unless they have been fully vaccinated.
A Government source has predicted take-up among younger children would be as high as 16- and 17-year-olds, if and when the green light is given.
Most Covid curbs have been lifted in schools in England, with children now only required to test themselves twice a week for the virus.
Only those that test positive for the virus will be sent home, but their peers and classmates will be allowed to stay in school providing they test negative. The change came after the ‘bubble system’ sent entire year groups home after just one positive test was detected.
Britain has been accused of being sluggish to roll out the Covid vaccine to other age groups, as its vaccination drive fell behind other countries.
US regulators approved Pfizer’s jab for 12 to 15-year-olds in May, and has already got at least one dose to 40 per cent (7million) of the age group.
The EU’s regulator also gave the age group the green light to get the jab at the end of May, with many countries quick to start rolling it out.
France began inoculating 12 to 15-year-olds in June, and more than 40 per cent (2million) have already received a first dose.
Italy started rolling out jabs to the age group from July with the aim of inoculating them before schools return. The Netherlands also began rolling out the jabs to secondary school children in July.