School Covid jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds - everything you need to know
- Credit: PA
Children aged 12 to 15 are to be offered their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine with sessions taking place in schools.
Health secretary Sajid Javid confirmed the move after the chief medical officers of the four UK nations advised younger teenagers should be offered the Pfizer/BioNTech jab.
He said the decision had taken into account the "extremely powerful" evidence on the impact of the pandemic on children's education, as well as the risks to their mental health from missing school.
In their advice to the Government, the chief medical officers said they were recommending vaccines on "public health grounds" and it was "likely vaccination will help reduce transmission of Covid-19 in schools".
The decision comes despite the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) saying Covid presents a very low risk for healthy children and vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.
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England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said it had been a "difficult decision" but chief medical officers would not be recommending the jabs "unless we felt that benefit exceeded risk".
He added: "In a sense, what we're not trying to do is say to children 'you must, must, must, must, must' but what we're saying is that we think on balance the benefits both at an individual level and in terms of wider indirect benefits to education and through that to public health are in favour, otherwise we would not be making this recommendation."
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How will the vaccinations work?
Invitations for the jab will begin next week, the government said.
All children in the age group will be offered a first Pfizer jab as soon as possible, with the programme led by in-school vaccination services.
A second injection will be potentially given once more evidence is gathered, so not before the spring term at the earliest.
A Public Health England leaflet on vaccines for eligible children and young people states: "The NHS is offering Covid-19 vaccination to children and young people.
"This includes those aged 12 to 17 years at increased risk from infection who will need two doses of the vaccine eight weeks apart.
"All other young people aged 12 to 17 years will be offered a first dose of vaccine. The timing of a second dose for these 12 to 17 year olds will be confirmed later."
How will schools be involved?
The School Age Immunisation Service will deliver the "bulk" of the vaccine programme, with separate vaccination sites used for schools where on-site delivery is not possible.
Former local head Geoff Barton, now general secretary of the ASCL headteacher union, said: “We have been in discussion with the Department for Education over the role of schools in vaccinations, and it is absolutely clear that this will be limited to hosting vaccination sessions and related administrative tasks.
“The vaccinations will be administered by healthcare staff and any disagreements over the question of consent between children and parents, which is likely to be extremely rare in practice, will be resolved by healthcare staff.
“Schools are well-versed in hosting NHS vaccination sessions as they already do this in relation to other vaccines.”
Will parents be able to say no?
Parental, guardian or carer consent will be sought by vaccination healthcare staff prior to vaccination in line with existing school vaccination programmes.
Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said vaccine information would be shared with parents but if there was a difference in opinion between a parent and child, health staff would bring them together to try and reach a consensus.
Where agreement can still not be reached, children can give consent themselves if clinicians consider them "competent".
Mr Zahawi said: “The school age vaccination programme is very well equipped to do this, to do this in a discreet and careful way with parents and children, but the bulk of vaccinations - this would be in the very rare occasions - the bulk of vaccinations will only be conducted if there is parental consent."
Does everyone agree with the decision?
Some experts have expressed doubts about whether expanding vaccinations to younger teens and children was necessary.
Professor Paul Hunter, from the University of East Anglia's Medical School, said there was very little data on children aged under 16.
"One of the difficulties here, that we've not really considered, is actually, how many of those younger people are already immune from natural infection?" he said.
During a debate MPs also expressed concerns with some saying it risks creating "family disputes" over whether their children should or should not get a Covid jab.
What has been the reaction from schools?
Mr Barton said: “We are conscious of the debate that has been raging over vaccinations, but it is vital to see this issue in the context of educational disruption.
“While the evidence is that children are less likely than older age groups to suffer severe symptoms as a result of catching Covid, the damage caused by disrupted schooling is very real and very apparent, both in terms of learning loss and in the impact on mental health and wellbeing.”
Jon Ford, principal of Open Academy Norwich, said: “The vaccination seems like a sensible precaution and we will work with the students to ensure that those who wish to get vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity.
“The Covid situation is a complex moving situation. All we can really be sure of is that we will monitor guidance regularly and respond as we always do by following the guidance as well as we can to keep our community as safe as possible.”
Jonathan Rockey, principal of Wymondham High Academy, said the question of take-up of the vaccination would be a “personal one for families and individual children”.
Could schools be the new frontline for those opposed to vaccination?
Teaching unions have warned that schools must be kept out of any potential controversies over Covid vaccinations.
Some headteachers have already reported receiving letters from pressure groups "threatening" legal action if schools take part in the Covid vaccination programme.
Mr Barton said: "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."
How do young people and their parents feel about it?
Millie-Marie Nicol, 12, who attends Flegg High School, said: “I am keen to have the vaccine because I don’t want this to go on forever.”
Her mother, Donna Nicol, added “To be honest I’m not overly thrilled about the idea of her having it as I'm not sure what the side effects in children are.
“Especially in girls with regards to affecting menstrual cycle and fertility, I just feel like I need more time to research.”
Kirk Wills, from Norwich, took a different approach by opting to share all the information available to him with his daughter Maisie Fletcher, 12.
Once he was confident he had given her the relevant information, he left it up to her to choose whether to go ahead with getting vaccinated or not.
“We have made the decision to tell her everything that we know about it, good and bad. Of course, I would like her to have it, I want her to be part of the solution not the problem, but I want her to feel she can make the choice.”
Nina Green did a lot of research, and has encouraged her children to get it, as she believes it is for the best.
“I know it’s a personal choice for everyone. Personally, I want my children to have it and I have encouraged it,” she said.
Her youngest son, Devon Green, 12, has been a little more apprehensive. “We talked it through, looking at the data and putting things in perspective.
“We also talked about vaccines that have helped to manage other illnesses in the past, such as polio and meningitis.”
Korben White, 15, from Dickleburgh, will be having the vaccine. He said: “I am happy to have the Covid jab because I will feel safer and it is the next step in bringing back normality, or what we considered to be normality pre-Covid.”
Kayleigh Baker, from Marlpit, feels fortunate that her daughter Aria who is almost 12 has not yet mentioned the vaccine. “I am not too keen on her having it until there is more research if I am completely honest.”
She explained that she is not comfortable with her daughter being used as a guinea pig whilst she is still unsure of the side effects.
“She is a healthy child; I don’t want to risk side effects before I know all the information.”