Covid: Which children are being vaccinated and why?

By James Gallagher
Health and science correspondent

image source, Getty Images

All children aged 12-15 should be offered one dose of the Pfizer vaccine, the UK’s chief medical officers have said.

Youngsters in England and Northern Ireland will be invited to get the jab, ministers have confirmed. A rollout is yet to be confirmed in Scotland and Wales.

Why could children aged 12 to 15 get a jab?

The chief medical officers (CMOs) for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland recommended a single Pfizer dose for all children aged 12 to 15.

Prof Chris Whitty, Chief Medical Officer for England, said it was a “difficult decision”, but that vaccinating this age group would reduce disruption to education.

He said absence from school “has been extraordinarily difficult for children”, particularly in deprived areas. Extended disruption could cause mental health problems and have long term effects on life chances, he added.

Vaccinating children won’t stop the spread of Covid in schools, but it should help keep cases down.

Evidence suggests a single dose cuts the risk of catching Delta (if you come into contact with it) by around 55%. If you do become infected, the vaccine reduces the chance of you getting very sick with Covid or spreading it to someone else.

A second dose should not be considered before the spring term, the chief medical officers said.

They made their recommendation after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation – the scientific body advising the government on vaccines – said it did not recommend vaccinating healthy children of that age on health grounds alone.

Is the vaccine compulsory?

Having the vaccine is not compulsory.

Prof Whitty said an “offer” of vaccination will be made to all children aged 12-15 in England.

But he said young people and their parents needed to be supported and there should be no stigma attached to their choice.

Will parents have to give permission?

The vaccine is likely to be given in schools and parents will be asked to give consent.

However, under the law children under 16 who can prove they understand the risks and benefits can ask for the vaccine – or refuse it – if they disagree with their parents.

This important legal test of whether a child can consent to treatment is known as “Gillick competent”. It is named after a famous dispute in which a teenager wanted contraceptive advice without her mother’s consent.

In practice it would be exceptional for a child under 13-years-old to be judged Gillick competent.

Those aged 16 and 17 don’t need parental permission to have the vaccine, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

What vaccine is used and will younger children be jabbed?

Currently under-18s are being given the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, although the Moderna vaccine has also been authorised for use in children in the UK.

There is no vaccine currently approved for under-12s in the UK.

Which children are already being offered the vaccine?

All 16 and 17-year-olds are being offered a first dose, with the intention of having a second at a later date.

Those aged 12 to 15 are already eligible for two doses if they are at higher risk due to:

  • Severe neurodisability (which could include cerebral palsy, autism or epilepsy)
  • Down’s syndrome
  • A severely weakened immune system, including some children with cancer
  • Profound and multiple learning difficulties
  • Chronic heart, lung and liver conditions

Children of the same age who live with people who have a suppressed immune system can also be vaccinated, to protect family members.

Is the Covid vaccine safe for children?

No medicine is completely safe and all are a balance of risk and benefit.

But the Pfizer jab wouldn’t have been approved for UK use if it wasn’t considered safe.

The vaccine has been linked to incredibly rare cases of inflammation of the heart muscle (myocarditis) and of the sac the heart beats inside (pericarditis). This was found to be more common in younger men and after a second dose.

But the European Medicines Agency – which approves vaccines for the European Union – says there have been one-to-two cases per million people given the vaccine. Nearly everyone made a full recovery.

What are other countries doing?

Many countries have already decided to vaccinate children over the age of 12 – including Canada and Brazil.

The EU approved the Pfizer vaccine for over-12s in May – after a study found a similar immune response in 12- to 15-year-olds as for 16- to 25-year-olds. Children were also found to experience the same common side effects, such as headaches.

Both Pfizer and Moderna are conducting trials of their vaccines on children as young as six months old.

image source, Getty Images
image captionYoung person vaccinated in north London

How many children have died from Covid?

Almost all children and young people are at very low risk from Covid-19.

Data for England suggests about 25 children died from Covid in the first 12 months of the pandemic.

The majority of them also had severe health problems, including complex neurodisabilities.

Only six had no recorded health conditions.

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