‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson expects Britain to press ahead with vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds against Covid
Britain is likely to press ahead with vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson claimed today.
The SAGE adviser — whose modelling spooked ministers into the initial lockdown in March — said today he expects Chris Whitty and the other chief medical officers to approve jabs for the age group.
Speaking at an online conference, he said: ‘On balance, I think we will probably move to vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds.
‘The question becomes even finer going into younger age groups (under-12s), but focusing on teenage secondary school children — I think we will move in that direction.’
He added: ‘It would not surprise me if the chief medical officers… would decide to go forward with vaccination (of 12 to 15-year-olds).’
The Government’s vaccine advisory panel on Friday said it would not recommend jabs for children because Covid poses such a low risk to their health.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) — which is independent of Government — has now left the decision with Professor Whitty and the three other chief medical officers (CMOs) in the devolved nations.
They will meet this week to decide whether the broader societal benefits — including keeping schools open during winter — tip the balance in favour of jabbing children, with a decision expected by Friday.
Scientists are divided over whether 12 to 15-year-olds should get the Covid vaccine, with some SAGE members backing the move yesterday arguing it would help to head off a surge in infections later this winter.
But others have argued it would be ethically dubious to inoculate the age group when millions of people in poorer countries are still waiting to be vaccinated.
The JCVI advises the Government on who should receive vaccines, whereas the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) which Professor Ferguson gives guidance to gives advice to ministers on how they should respond to emergenceis such as outbreaks of infectious diseases.
The JCVI said that youngsters under 16 with severe conditions have a one in 10,000 chance of falling seriously ill with Covid compared to the one in 500,000 risk for healthy children. It said that a very rare heart complication associated with the jabs meant the benefits of vaccination ‘only marginally’ outweighed the risks in healthy under-16s, but not enough to recommend a mass rollout
This chart shows vaccinations by age group in England. In the under-18s age group the Covid vaccine is already recommended for 16 and 17-year-olds, and half have already got one dose
Dr David Strain, co-chair of the BMA Medical Academics, claimed youngsters aged 12 to 15 were capable of weighing up the benefits of vaccination against the small risk of serious side effects.
He claimed they should be able to overrule their parents’ wishes and get the injection if officials sign off on the plans this week.
Should children be vaccinated?
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.’
But Dr Strain admitted that rolling out doses to the age group would only cut transmission by 20 per cent
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said yesterday that children would be able to get the vaccine against their parents’ wishes if it is made available for the age group.
Dr Strain, who is also clinical lead for Covid services at the Royal Devon & Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, told LBC Radio: ‘A lot of children aged 12 have enough maturity in order to make a decision themselves, although it’s not the same for every child.
‘Doctors and nurses are trained to be able to evaluate them and deem them competent.’
‘Vaccinating children will reduce the spread of the virus in the population by about 20 per cent.’
Speaking about his own family, he said: ‘My 16-year-old has already had the vaccine; our 12-year-old, who’s actually starting school tomorrow, will be desperately keen to get the vaccine.
‘We have weighed up the evidence and fully accept there is this very small risk of myocarditis after the first jab, but actually the risk of myocarditis after getting Covid is about the same, if not slightly higher.
‘These are the factors, so I would have no hesitation at all to allow my children to have the vaccine.’
Professor Whitty is under mounting political pressure to approve jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds in England.
Downing Street fears that while daily cases never hit the prediction of 100,000 cases a day over the summer, they could spiral to these levels during the winter months if kids aren’t given vaccines.
This would leave the country fighting a new Covid wave at the same time as a flu outbreak, putting further pressure on the NHS.
But in its ruling on Friday, the JCVI said giving Covid vaccines to children would only have ‘marginal’ benefits to their health.
It said that the benefits did not yet outweigh the risk of potential side effects – namely heart inflammation.
Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chairman of the JCVI, this morning acknowledged that the group was in the ‘uncomfortable’ position of disagreeing with the Government.
He told Good Morning Britain: ‘It is very finely balanced. It’s marginally in favour, actually if you look at all the figures — and we have published those — in favour of vaccination.
‘But I do understand it from a parental viewpoint and I understand it from a teenager’s viewpoint.
‘This is not an easy decision. And, to a certain extent, by us coming out and saying no, if the Government say yes that does create a lot of uncomfortableness, and I fully understand that.’
He said they want to provide the data for everyone to look at and, should the chief medical officers decide healthy children in this age group should be offered a jab, they are ‘giving choice’.
He added: ‘It is up to then parents and teenagers to decide whether they go ahead or not. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to this.’
Mr Zahawi told Times Radio yesterday that children would be able to overrule their parents to get the vaccine, should the jab be recommended for the age group.
He said: ‘What you essentially do is make sure that the clinicians discuss this with the parents, with the teenager, and if they are then deemed to be able to make a decision that is competent, then that decision will go in the favour of what the teenager decides to do.’
Mr Zahawi added that if jabbing 12 to 15-year-olds was recommended by Britain’s medical officers it was ‘absolutely’ the right thing to do.
He said that parents would be asked for consent if jabs were approved for the age group.
Medics have warned, however, that clinicians will be ‘reluctant’ to give jabs to children without their parents’ consent.
The associate professor of family law at Oxford University, Lucinda Ferguson, told The Telegraph: ‘In my view the clinician may well be reluctant to accept that because alongside that, you have now got the JCVI saying that they don’t consider it to be essentially in the medical best interests of children more generally.
She added: ‘At least at this stage wold be reluctant to accept that that consent (from a child) is good enough because of course if you treat a child without informed consent, either from them, or from a parent with parental responsibility, it is technically battery and that would be what would be concerning the clinician.’
Several SAGE members have already said they are in favour of vaccinating the age group to head off a surge in cases later this year.
Professor John Edmunds, who sits on the powerful committee, said on Saturday: ‘In the UK now it’s difficult to say how many children have not been infected but it is probably around half of them.
‘That’s a long way to go if we allow the infection just to run through the population, that’s a lot of children who will be infected that will be a lot of disruption to schools in the coming months.’
SAGE adviser Professor Peter Openshaw also backed vaccinating the age group yesterday to head off a surge in infections.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘We do know the virus is circulating very widely amongst this age group, and that if we’re going to be able to get the rates down and also prevent further surges of infection perhaps later in the winter, then this is the group that needs to become immune.
‘And the best way to become immune is through vaccination, and there’s never been as much information as this in the past.’
He added: ‘To my mind, the public health benefit is very, very important, and we have to take the wider view that unless we do get infection rates down amongst this particular part of the population, it will be very, very hard to prevent further large recurrences (of Covid).’
War over jabs for kids: Sajid Javid orders medical experts to examine ‘broader’ case for giving vaccines to children after JCVI decides NOT to recommend Covid jabs for healthy children aged 12 to 15 because the virus poses such a low risk to them
Sajid Javid suggested that ministers plan to press on with Covid vaccinations for children today despite the Government’s jab experts deciding a mass rollout was not needed.
The Health Secretary and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have asked their chief medical officers to examine the ‘broader’ benefits of such a scheme, after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s decision.
It came as scientists and ministers clashed over whether the UK should be routinely vaccinating children against Covid.
The JCVI has resisted growing pressure from senior ministers and scientists who urged it to follow the likes of the US, France, Spain, Italy, Canada, and the Netherlands, which are pressing ahead with the move.
The scientists said the virus posed such a low risk to children aged between 12 and 15 that the benefit to their health of immunisation would be marginal.
However, the JCVI has told the Government to seek advice from elsewhere to determine whether a mass rollout in schools would have wider benefits, such as keeping classrooms open and avoiding future lockdowns.
The UK’s four chief medical officers will spend this week weighing up whether vaccinating secondary school-aged children will have a broader benefit on society.
Mr Javid said: ‘Along with health ministers across the four nations, I have today written to the Chief Medical Officers to ask that they consider the vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds from a broader perspective, as suggested by the JCVI.
‘We will then consider the advice from the Chief Medical Officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly.’
The review will not consider any benefits adults may experience due to having children vaccinated, but will instead focus on areas outside the JCVI’s remit, such as lost education time due to Covid-related absences, either through sickness or being sent home from school.
A decision is not expected for several days.
Britain’s Covid outbreak continued to grow today as another 42,076 infections were registered, up nearly 11 per cent on last Friday. There were also another 121 Covid deaths, a 21 per cent jump in a week.
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
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
It came as official data showed Scotland’s weekly Covid cases have nearly trebled in the fortnight after schools went back after summer there There are fears the rest of the UK will be hit with a similar bang in cases now that classes are resuming this week
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. Dr Simon Clarke (right) said he would have no issue with children being vaccinated providing consent was sought from their parents. Some experts have said that vaccinating children will help avoid disruption to their education
Which 12 to 15-year-olds will now be offered a Covid vaccine?
Healthy children under the age of 16 do not need to be vaccinated against Covid, the Government’s vaccine advisory panel ruled today.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said the virus posed such a low risk to 12 to 15-year-olds that the benefit of vaccination to their health would be marginal.
But they did recommend the jabs for 200,000 more children with chronic conditions that put them at greater risk from Covid. A total of 350,000 children aged 12 to 15 are now eligible for the vaccine.
Children aged 12 to 15 who have the following conditions can now get a Covid vaccine:
- Haematological malignancy;
- Sickle cell disease;
- Type 1 diabetes;
- Congenital heart disease;
- Other health conditions such as poorly controlled asthma that mean a child is considered to be part of the ‘Covid clinical risk group’.
The JCVI did recommend the jabs for 200,000 more children with chronic heart, kidney, lung and neurological conditions in that age group. A total of 350,000 children aged 12 to 15 are now eligible for the vaccine.
The expert panel said that youngsters under 16 with severe conditions have a one in 10,000 chance of falling seriously ill with Covid compared to the one in 500,000 risk for healthy children.
It said that a very rare heart complication associated with the jabs meant the benefits of vaccination ‘only marginally’ outweighed the risks in healthy under-16s, but not enough to recommend a mass rollout.
The JCVI said it had investigated the extremely rare events of inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
While the condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, the JCVI has concluded the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to get a clearer picture.
The decision comes exactly a week after the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed preparations were under way to ensure the NHS was ready to offer coronavirus jabs to all 12 to 15-year-olds in England from early September.
The department had said it wanted to be ‘ready to hit the ground running’.
On Thursday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he felt parents would find it ‘deeply reassuring’ to have a choice of whether their children should have a jab or not, adding that many people hoped they would be in a position ‘of being able to roll out vaccinations for those who are under the age of 16’.
The Government has said if all 12 to 15-year-olds were to be offered a vaccine, parental or carer consent will be sought as it is in other school immunisation programmes.
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said he agrees the issue of a wider rollout ‘warrants further consideration’.
He said: ‘It is entirely appropriate that our most senior medical advisers take forward this piece of work urgently. I look forward to seeing their considerations in the near future.’
Which countries are already offering jabs to 12 to 15-year-olds?
The JCVI has resisted calls to recommend vaccines for healthy under-16s.
While the move will irk Government ministers who were keen to go ahead with the plans to keep infection rates in schools low, some scientists applauded the panel for not bowing to political pressure and ‘following the science’.
But the country is at risk of becoming an international outlier as many other western nations have already started jabbing children. They include:
- Denmark, from August
- France, from June 15
- Parts of Germany, from August
- Israel, from June 6
- Italy, from August 11
- The Netherlands, from July
- Norway, from September
- Poland, from June
- Parts of Spain, from August
- Sweden, from August
- Switzerland, from July
- The US, from May 10
Welsh Government Health Minister Eluned Morgan said she had asked the country’s chief medical officer ‘to provide guidance at the earliest opportunity on the clinical and wider health benefits of vaccinating this age group’, while Scottish Health Minister Humza Yousaf said he had asked for the review to be conducted ‘as soon as possible’.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said he is disappointed by the JCVI decision not to recommend jabs for all 12 to 15-year-olds.
He added that while they respect it, it could mean it is ‘more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus’.
He said: ‘We are therefore pleased that the door appears to have been left at least partially open as the government looks at wider issues including disruption to schools. The trouble is that time is pressing, the autumn term is upon us and we really do need a decision.’
Scottish Health Minister Humza Yousaf said: ‘I have agreed with the other three UK Health Ministers to write a letter asking the four Chief Medical Officers to consider this latest guidance and explore whether there is additional evidence to suggest it would be beneficial to offer vaccination to all 12 – 15 year olds.
‘We have asked for this further work to be conducted as soon as possible.’
The Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has asked the NHS to put preparations in place to roll out vaccinations to 12 to 15 year olds, should it be recommended by the Chief Medical Officers.
If this group is offered the vaccine, parental or carer consent will be sought, just as with other school immunisation programmes.
The vaccination programme has so far provided protection to over 48 million people over the age of 16 across the UK – including over 48 million first doses and over 43 million second doses.
The latest data from Public Health England and Cambridge University shows vaccines have saved more than 105,000 lives and prevented 143,600 hospitalisations and 24 million cases in England.
Senior ministers were said to be increasingly embittered at the failure of Government experts to authorise the rollout of Covid vaccines to under-16s ahead of the decision from the JCVI.
A Whitehall source said there was ‘palpable frustration’ among Government figures with the JCVI. Both Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid are said to be keen to get on with vaccinating school children.
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
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.
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.’
Meanwhile, in a clear sign of the enthusiasm for the jab among teenagers, figures showed half of 16- and 17-year-olds have already had a vaccine dose in just four weeks.
Scientists and ministers were at war today over whether the UK should be routinely vaccinating children against Covid ahead of the announcement from the JCVI.
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.’
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 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.
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.