The UK’s four chief medical officers are to consider further evidence on offering jabs to all healthy 12 to 15-year-olds after advisers decided against recommending a mass rollout.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has announced that it is widening the jabs programme to more children in this age bracket who have underlying health conditions.
But it is not recommending vaccination of all 12 to 15-year-olds, despite ministers indicating they favoured a broader programme and pressing for a quick decision.
Instead, it has suggested the Government might want to get further views on the wider societal and educational impacts of extending the jabs rollout.
The JCVI said that as coronavirus presents only a very low risk to healthy children, the marginal benefit of vaccination to their own health is not great enough to support mass vaccination from a purely health perspective.
The committee also said it had investigated the extremely rare events of inflammation of the heart muscle, known as myocarditis, after Pfizer or Moderna vaccines.
While the condition can result in short periods of hospital observation, followed by typically swift recoveries, the JCVI has concluded the medium to long-term outcomes are still uncertain and more follow-up time is needed to get a clearer picture.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have now written to the chief medical officers in the four nations to ask that they begin to look at any broader impact universal vaccination in this age group might have.
The review will not consider any benefits adults may experience due to having children vaccinated, but will instead focus on areas outside the JCVI’s remit, such as lost education time due to Covid-related absences, either through sickness or being sent home from school.
A decision is not expected for several days.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of Covid-19 immunisation for the JCVI, said: “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. The committee will continue to review safety data as they emerge.”
JCVI deputy chair Professor Anthony Harnden said there is “no precedent” for this particular situation, and added it was the committee’s decision to suggest the Government might seek further advice “as we don’t have the expertise to assess the educational aspects”.
Mr Javid said he is “grateful” for the expert advice from the committee, and added that Government hoped to make a decision “shortly”.
He said: “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.”
The jabs programme is being extended from what had been considered the most at-risk children to include those with chronic major heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological conditions.
It means about 200,000 more children will be invited for vaccines.
The decision comes exactly a week after the Department of Health and Social Care confirmed preparations were under way to ensure the NHS was ready to offer coronavirus jabs to all 12 to 15-year-olds in England from early September.
The department had said it wanted to be “ready to hit the ground running”.
On Thursday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said he felt parents would find it “deeply reassuring” to have a choice of whether their children should have a jab or not, adding that many people hoped they would be in a position “of being able to roll out vaccinations for those who are under the age of 16”.
The Government has said if all 12 to 15-year-olds were to be offered a vaccine, parental or carer consent will be sought as it is in other school immunisation programmes.
Northern Ireland Health Minister Robin Swann said he agrees the issue of a wider rollout “warrants further consideration”.
He said: “It is entirely appropriate that our most senior medical advisers take forward this piece of work urgently. I look forward to seeing their considerations in the near future.”
Welsh Government Health Minister Eluned Morgan said she had asked the country’s chief medical officer “to provide guidance at the earliest opportunity on the clinical and wider health benefits of vaccinating this age group”, while Scottish Health Minister Humza Yousaf said he had asked for the review to be conducted “as soon as possible”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said he is disappointed by the JCVI decision not to recommend jabs for all 12 to 15-year-olds.
He added that while they respect it, it could mean it is “more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus”.
He said: “We are therefore pleased that the door appears to have been left at least partially open as the government looks at wider issues including disruption to schools. The trouble is that time is pressing, the autumn term is upon us and we really do need a decision.”
Meanwhile, data from the Cov-Boost study, which is looking at different vaccines to see what immune responses they give and whether jabs can be mixed and matched, is expected to be provided to the JCVI next week.
A recommendation for any booster programme for the UK has not yet been made by the committee, although Prime Minister Boris Johnson has already appeared to confirm a rollout will begin this month, saying older people are the priority as autumn and winter approach.