Politics

Protecting the young from COVID-19: Children aged 12 to 15 will now be offered jabs

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Under the plan, supported by ministers last night, youngsters aged 12 to 15 can have the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine at their schools.

Parents will be consulted before their children are jabbed, the Government said.

But the youngsters will be able to have the final say on whether they receive the vaccine even if their parents refuse consent, said Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer.

That will only happen in cases where the child is judged to have enough intelligence, competence and understanding to come to an informed decision.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid ordered the rollout following advice from Prof Whitty and his counterparts from the rest of the UK.

He said the programme would protect young people from catching Covid-19, reduce transmission in schools and keep pupils in the classroom.

He added: “I am very grateful for the expert advice I have received from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and UK chief medical officers.

“Our outstanding NHS stands ready to move forward with rolling out the vaccine to this group with the same sense of urgency we’ve had at every point in our programme.”

Anybody who believes the big risk of Covid is all in the past has not understood where we are going to head as we go into autumn and winter

Prof Chris Whitty

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed the decision in a statement to MPs last night.

The rollout will be based on existing school vaccination programmes for diphtheria, tetanus and polio, supported by GPs and community pharmacies.

Alternative arrangements will be made for youngsters who are homeschooled, in secure services or specialist mental health settings to be jabbed.

Parental, guardian or carer consent will be sought by vaccination healthcare staff prior to vaccination in line with existing school vaccination programmes.

Prof Whitty and the chief medical officers for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said minimising the threat of further disruption to education was a key factor in the decision, even though the health benefits of mass vaccination for children were small.

Prof Whitty said: “We think it is an important and potentially useful additional tool to help reduce the public health impacts that come through educational disruption.”

Prof Whitty also warned that coronavirus will continue to be a significant health threat over the next few months. He told a Downing Street press conference: “Anybody who believes the big risk of Covid is all in the past has not understood where we are going to head as we go into autumn and winter, where there will continue to be challenges and pressure on the NHS.”

The advice from the medical officers of the UK followed last week’s decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds.

It had concluded that the virus posed a very low risk for healthy children so vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.

Professor Wei Shen Lim, the committee’s immunisation chairman, said there was “no conflict” with the JCVI recommendation and the advice from the chief medical officers.

His committee had focused on the health benefits, while the health chiefs had taken wider issues, including the impact on education, into account.

Prof Whitty said there were “no plans at the moment” to consider vaccinations for children under 12.

He added that giving doses to the youngsters would not mean any delay in the planned rollout of booster jabs this autumn.

During the Downing Street briefing, Dr June Raine, from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, said the side effects for 12 to 15-year-olds being vaccinated are “mild”.

Addressing a “competent” child’s ability to overrule a parent, Prof Whitty explained: “This ruling about what the law says was laid down in the mid-Eighties.”

Clinicians describe such children as being “Gillick competent” and therefore able to consent to their own treatment.

It is named after activist Victoria Gillick, who campaigned against allowing under-16s to access contraception without parental consent or knowledge.

In 1985, the House of Lords ruled that children could make their own decisions as long as they fully understood the medical treatment being discussed.

Prof Whitty added: “Whether you’re a GP, a paediatrician, or anyone else dealing with children and young people, this approach is completely standard.”

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