Children aged 12 to 15 should be offered a first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, the UK’s four chief medical officers (CMOs) have said.
The decision takes into account the impact of the pandemic on children’s education as well as the risks to their mental health from missing school.
The move means that around three million children could be eligible for the jab and comes despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) deciding not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds.
It is expected the vaccinations will be given through schools.
The JCVI said Covid-19 presents a very low risk for healthy children and vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.
But they suggested that the wider issues, such as education, should be taken into consideration and examined by CMOs.
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.”
The CMOs 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.
The CMOs think a single dose will reduce significantly the chance of a young person getting Covid and passing the virus on.
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.
The JCVI has already recommended that children and young people aged 12 to 17 with specific underlying health conditions, and children and young people who are aged 12 years and over who are household contacts of people who are immunocompromised are offered two doses of a vaccine.
Scotland’s health secretary Humza Yousaf said that ministers are now considering the advice
He said: “On September 3, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised that whilst there were individual health benefits to vaccinating 12 -15 year olds, these were too marginal to recommend universal vaccination of this group.
“However, the committee suggested governments might want to seek further input from CMOs on the wider public health impact vaccination could have.
“Myself and the three other health ministers therefore commissioned the UK CMOs to look into this and, after consideration with clinical and public health leaders from all four nations, they have agreed the additional likely benefits of reducing educational disruption, in addition to the benefits identified by the JCVI, provide sufficient extra advantage to justify the offer of vaccination to this group.”
“Health ministers are now considering this advice and we will make a decision as soon as possible.
“In the meantime I want to thank Dr Gregor Smith and the other three UK CMOs for their time and careful consideration of this issue.”
On Tuesday, Professor Devi Sridhar, personal chair in global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said mixed messaging surrounding jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds “hasn’t helped”.
She told Good Morning Britain: “The mixed messaging hasn’t helped. I personally think part of it is because they were so late with a decision – we have just had the same evidence that other countries have had since May and June, and those countries ran ahead because they knew the school year was coming and started vaccinating their children.
“There hasn’t really been new evidence that’s come up in the UK shift in position, so I think part of that is why we have had mixed messaging – they’re trying to explain to people why they’re doing something now that they didn’t do two months ago.”
She added: “Every virologist I know, whether it’s in Germany or in France or in the States or Canada, have gotten their child vaccinated as soon as they become eligible, it hasn’t been something they struggled with, it’s been, ‘actually I want to protect my child as fast as possible’.”