Covid vaccines will still not be offered to all over-12s in the UK after experts rejected mounting pressure to extend the jab rollout for kids.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) today extended the small group of seriously ill children aged 12 to 15 who can currently get vaccinated.
But it announced it cannot recommend jabs for otherwise healthy children in this age group for the time being. The JCVI says the small risk from Covid-19 to that age group does not justify the risk from extremely rare side effects.
The JCVI will now no longer make the final recommendation on extending jabs to all children aged 12 to 15 because it cannot decide on the wider benefits, such as to schooling and adults’ protection.
Instead, the issue has been passed over to the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers – who Health Secretary Sajid Javid has asked to give advice “as soon as possible”.
It’s understood the government could make the final decision on jabs for all over-12s as soon as next week, with advice expected to be days or weeks away.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson had been among those calling for all children aged 12 and over to be offered the vaccine, with parental consent.
While all over-16s can get the jab, those aged 12 to 15 could only get it if they were clinically vulnerable, or live with adults who are at increased risk of serious illness.
Today the JCVI said this offer should be expanded to include more children aged 12 to 15 – for example those with sickle cell disease, type 1 diabetes, and other serious heart, lung, liver and neurological conditions that put them at high risk from the virus. The group includes around 200,000 children.
JCVI experts admit that by rejecting jabs for all over-12s, they are prioritising the direct risk versus benefit to the child – rather than the wider benefit to adults of greater population immunity.
They have analysed US data on an extremely rare side effect called myocarditis. This causes the heart muscle to become inflamed, reducing its ability to pump blood.
It is detected by medics picking up an unusual heart rhythm, mainly in boys within a week after the second dose.
Scientists in the US – where millions of children have been vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna jabs – picked up 1,000 cases of heart inflammation.
Most cases were mild and around 800 of these kids had recovered by July.
The JCVI says it cannot consider the indirect impact of failing to jab children, such as disruption to schools, as they are not direct health impacts.
Therefore the UK chief medical officers will now review the medical evidence and wider impacts to inform a final government decision on jabs for all children aged 12 to 15.
Chief Medical Officers will not consider the wider benefit to older adults of in terms of population immunity, only the direct benefit and risk to children.
It’s understood they will now take their time before deciding on whether to vaccinate all over-12s at some point later.
It means that with schools already back in England for the last three days, the UK’s vaccination offer is broadly the same as it was several weeks ago.
On Wednesday the JCVI extended third doses to around 500,000 Brits with weakened immune systems, but stopped short of announcing a booster campaign for the elderly.
That was despite the fact ministers were hoping to roll out a mass booster campaign from September 6 and a school jabs campaign shortly afterwards.
The JCVI delivers a recommendation on who should get vaccines and when, based in the particular UK context – and the Government then decides whether to accept it.
It comes after the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people aged 12 and over after they met its strict standards of safety and effectiveness.
Some experts fear the rejection by the JCVI could sow confusion and fuel anti-vax sentiment.
Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt today urged ministers to “get on with the booster programme” instead of waiting for the JCVI’s sign-off.
“I understand why scientists are taking their time but I think in a pandemic politicians can also read the rooms and see the direction of travel,” he told the BBC.
“In a pandemic I think even a few days can make a big difference.
“So I think we should just get on, not wait for that advice, get on with a booster programme.”
Prof Wei Shen Lim, chair of COVID-19 Immunisation for the JCVI, said: “For otherwise healthy 12- to 15-year-old children, their risk of severe COVID-19 disease is small and therefore the potential for benefit from COVID-19 vaccination is also small.
“The JCVI’s view is that overall, the health benefits from COVID-19 vaccination to healthy children aged 12 to 15 years are marginally greater than the potential harms. Taking a precautionary approach, this margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal COVID-19 vaccination for this age group at this time.”
Geoff Barton of the ASCL union said: “We are disappointed that the JCVI has decided against recommending Covid vaccinations in general to children aged between 12 and 15.
“We understand that this decision has been made after making an assessment of the balance of risks and with all the available evidence, and we respect that decision.
“Nevertheless, the upshot is that this would make it more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption.”
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said: “If the decision not to vaccinate is upheld by the chief medical officers, this makes additional safety mitigations in schools all the more important.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid said: “Our Covid-19 vaccines have brought a wide range of benefits to the country, from saving lives and preventing hospitalisations, to helping stop infections and allowing children to return to school.
“I am grateful for the expert advice that I have received from the independent JCVI.
“People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a COVID-19 vaccine, and today we’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or type 1 diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children.
“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.”