Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the second opinion would help the UK’s four chief medical officers review the benefits and risks “from a broader perspective”. His decision to delay a decision on inoculation for all youngsters came after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said yesterday that it would not recommend universal jabs for children aged 12 to 15.
The specialists took the unprecedented step of suggesting further experts should be asked to review factors other than just health impacts, such as interrupted education and lost exams. They denied they had faced political pressure to seek extra input.
Prof Adam Finn, a JCVI member, said: “We should be careful, we should gather more information and we should not go forward with a universal programme at this time.
“Having said that, there are broader considerations beyond the remit of JCVI around the continuing instability of education.Those are the things beyond the health aspects that may now be considered.”
The JCVI has meanwhile expanded the categories of children eligible for injection due to their underlying health problems.
Around 200,000 youngsters aged 12 to 15 with conditions including Type 1 diabetes, sickle cell disease and congenital heart disease will be offered doses.
Youngsters with existing health issues are reported to be around 50 times more likely than healthy ones to be admitted to intensive care with Covid.
The JCVI found that for healthy children the benefits of having the jab were marginally greater than the potential harms of remaining unvaccinated ‑ but not enough to justify a full rollout.
There are concerns over rare cases of myocarditis ‑ inflammation of the heart ‑ following vaccination. The chances of healthy children becoming severely ill with coronavirus are also tiny.
Prof Anthony Harnden, the JCVI’s deputy chairman, said: “This was a very finely balanced decision.
“We’ve taken a precautionary approach in just vaccinating those highly at risk children with underlying illnesses.”
Ministers have asked the chief medical officers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland plus England’s Prof Chris Whitty for a broader review and report on the pros and cons of universal inoculation. It is expected to take “several days”.
Mr Javid added: “People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a Covid-19 vaccine.
“We’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or Type 1 diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children.
“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.”
Prof Harnden said: “This is a very unusual situation in which children’s education has been interrupted by getting Covid, their progress with examinations etc. Therefore we felt that in this one instance it would be wise to refer to other more expert people.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, claimed that the JCVI decision not to support jabs for all 12 to 15-year-olds at the moment would make it more difficult to minimise disruption to education.
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. Time is pressing, the autumn term is upon us and we really do need a decision.
“In the meantime, it is now even more important that the Government does everything possible to provide support to schools and colleges to manage this situation and keep children in class.”
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “If the decision not to vaccinate is upheld by the chief medical officers, this makes additional safety mitigations in schools all the more important.”
He claimed that by “taking away so many safety measures last term, without replacing them with others”, the Government had left schools open to another rise in Covid cases.