Parents, experts and teaching unions warned of conflict in schools today after the UK signed off on plans to jab healthy 12 to 15-year-olds against Covid — which will see children able to overrule their parents’ decision.
Around 3million children are due to start getting their jabs from next week after Chris Whitty endorsed the move, claiming that it would help prevent outbreaks in classrooms and further disruptions to education this winter.
Doses will be largely administered through the school vaccination programme, and parental consent will be sought – but children will be able to override their parents in the case of a conflict.
Angry parents fumed against the move to leave the decision with young children who ‘can’t even decide what they want for tea, never mind’ a vaccine, which carry small risks of side effects.
Professor Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading who is in favour of jabbing children, warned that giving youngsters the final say could lead to children being bullied by their peers into taking the jab.
He told MailOnline: ‘It will cause rows I think, if they insist on full consent from parents before vaccination. You may end up in a situation where a minority, it will probably be the unvaccinated, get bullied and excluded by other children.’
Just hours after the announcement, headteachers revealed they were already receiving letters from pressure groups threatening legal action if schools take part in an under-16 vaccination programme.
The teachers’ union NAHT demanded urgent reassurance that medics will be responsible for concerns about consent and vaccination rather than being left to schools, which could lead to tension with parents.
The scientific community has been split over vaccinating healthy children against Covid because the virus poses such a low risk to their health.
No10’s own advisory panel said earlier this month that immunising healthy under-16s would only provide ‘marginal’ benefit to their health, and not enough to recommend a mass rollout.
The decision was left with Professor Whitty and the chief medical officers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who looked at the wider benefits to society, including keeping classrooms open.
The chief medical officers said that even though Covid poses a small risk to children’s health, the negative impacts of school closures on their life prospects and mental wellbeing tipped the balance in favour of vaccination.
They have recommended under-16s initially only be offered a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine, which has shown to be up to 55 per cent effective at preventing infection from the Delta variant.
A decision on second doses is still to be determined when more data is available internationally, with a decision expected by the spring term at the earliest. Officials will weigh up the risk of heart complications, which are slightly more common after the second shot.
The programme in the UK has until now been limited to children with serious underlying health conditions and youngsters who live with extremely vulnerable relatives.
Mother-of-three Amanda Duncan, from Birkenhead in Merseyside, said today’s announcement made ‘no difference’ to her because her children would not be getting the vaccine.
She said: ‘My kids can’t even choose what they want for tea never mind anything else. Over my dead body will my boys get it.’
Professor Whitty and the CMOs in the devolved nations were asked to look at the ‘broader’ societal benefits of vaccinating schoolchildren at the start of the month after the Government’s advisers ruled against the move.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said immunising healthy under-16s would only provide ‘marginal’ benefit to their health, and not enough to recommend a mass rollout.
But it advised the Government to seek further advice from its chief medical officers about the wider benefits of vaccination on the pandemic, which was beyond the scope of its review.
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.’
They admitted the rollout will likely only stop about 30,000 infections among 12 to 15-year-olds between now and March.
But the vaccines will prevent tens of thousands more from having to self-isolate and miss school as a result, they claim.
Modelling of the winter term estimated that without the vaccines there could be about 89,000 infections among 12 to 15-year-olds, compared to 59,000 with the rollout.
Without vaccination they warn of 320,000 school absences by March, whereas this could be reduced to 220,000 with the jabs.
The CMOs think a single dose will reduce significantly the chance of a young person getting Covid and passing the virus on, with studies showing the Pfizer vaccine is 55 per cent effective at blunting infection in adults after one dose.
But they 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.
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.
‘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.
But there are fears that giving children the ability to overrule their parents could lead to conflict.
Headteachers are receiving letters from pressure groups threatening legal action if schools take part in Covid vaccination programmes, a union has said.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ‘Many of our members have been receiving letters from various pressure groups threatening schools and colleges with legal action if they take part in any Covid vaccination programme.
‘This is extremely unhelpful and we would ask those involved in this correspondence to stop attempting to exert pressure on schools and colleges.
‘The question of whether or not to offer vaccinations to this age group has clearly been thoroughly considered and the decision on whether or not to accept this offer is a matter for families.’
Others have called for the Government to spell out exactly where the final decision will lie.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: ‘Now that a decision has been made, it is essential that the Government immediately confirms that the process surrounding vaccinations will be run and overseen entirely by the appropriate medical teams.
‘Where parents have questions, including about important matters such as consent, these must be handled by those same medical teams.
‘There must be no delay in confirming this otherwise school leaders will be put in an impossible position of facing questions to which they simply do not have the answers.’
The CMOs admitted the rollout will likely only stop about 30,000 infections among 12 to 15-year-olds between now and March. But the vaccines will prevent tens of thousands more from having to self-isolate and miss school as a result, they claim. Modelling of the winter term estimated that without the vaccines there could be about 89,000 infections among 12 to 15-year-olds, compared to 59,000 with the rollout. Without vaccination they warn of 320,000 school absences by March, whereas this could be reduced to 220,000 with the jabs