Confusion over Covid jabs for over-12s in England ahead of new school term

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Confusion is growing over whether all children aged 12 and over will soon be offered a Covid jab as schools in England prepare to return next week, with the NHS gearing up for vaccinations but government scientists warning of potential complications.

Amid uncertainty over the parallel issue of who may be given a third, “booster”, jab the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is understood to have concerns on issues including knock-on effects on other childhood vaccinations, and the logistics of a mass programme for 12- to 15-year-olds.

At present, those 16 and over have been offered the vaccine.

But while both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna jabs are approved for those aged 12 to 17, only some children aged 12-15 are eligible for the vaccination – specifically those who are clinically extremely vulnerable or living with someone who is at risk.

On Thursday it emerged that NHS England has been told to gear up to vaccinate all children aged 12 and above, with plans required to be in place by 4pm on Friday.

The development came despite no changes to guidance from the JCVI, which advises the government on the vaccination programme. “Ministers have not yet received further advice from the JCVI on this age group,” a government spokesperson said.

Some scientists have argued for extending jabs generally for the over-12s, noting some children become very unwell with the disease, or have long Covid, and arguing it would help reduce community transmission.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday, Prof Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said she is in favour of offering 12- to 15-year-olds Covid jabs because the Delta variant is “flying through schools”.

But others stress the delicate balance of risks and benefits to individual children. There are also ethical issues, with the World Health Organization, among others, saying that richer countries should postpone giving children and teenagers the jabs while vulnerable people in poorer nations remain unvaccinated.

The JCVI has already warned the Covid vaccination drive may have led to “vaccination fatigue” and hence a drop in the number of teenagers in England getting vaccinated against conditions from meningitis to cervical cancer.

While the mobilisation of NHS England may hint that a decision on expanding the Covid vaccination programme is imminent, the Guardian understands that the preparations may simply be a matter of logistics.

One JCVI source told the Guardian it can take three hours of extra training to be able to administer vaccines to a 16-year-old to cover issues such as safeguarding, potentially presenting challenges for Covid vaccination hubs, while using school medical staff would impact on other vaccination programmes.

There is additionally confusion over consent for childhood vaccines, following reports that children would be able to give it.

The Guardian understands that the process is somewhat more complex. According to the Department of Health and Social Care, should an eligible child want the jab but there is no parental consent, a discussion would take place with the parent or carer, with it very rare that vaccination would proceed only with the child’s consent.

On Wednesday Scotland’s deputy first minister, John Swinney, said the return of schools in Scotland last week was helping to fuel a dramatic uptick in cases, with high numbers of young people recently testing positive for Covid.

However, speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Rowland Kao of the University of Edinburgh and a participant in the government’s SPI-M modelling group, noted that the uptick began at least a week before schools returned meaning factors other than mixing in schools, although potentially related to the end of the school holidays, are likely important.

“People returning to work after holidays and changing mixing patterns – possibly also meeting up with friends, return to social activities, incremental changes in activities and behaviours as restrictions ease may all be contributing,” he said.

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