Let parents decide on Covid jab for 12- to 15-year-olds, say vaccine advisers

Parents should choose whether they allow their children to be vaccinated against Covid-19 if ministers overrule scientific advice against mass vaccination of healthy 12- to 15-year-olds, the government’s independent vaccine advisers have said.

The government is set to push ahead with vaccinations for teenagers but Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said on Saturday that it was “entirely up to parents” to decide.

“The health benefits from vaccinating well 12- to 15-year-olds are marginally greater than the risks,” he told the Observer.

“If the educational benefits of vaccinating make that benefit/risk balance tip towards a greater benefit/risk ratio then – with parents’ consent – it would be entirely reasonable to offer a choice of vaccination to well 12- to 15-year-olds. Both the teenagers and the parents need to be involved in that choice.”

Boris Johnson is also heading for a confrontation with his own MPs after the leader of backbench Tories said vaccinations for 12- to 15 year-olds would “plainly be wrong” given lack of clear consensus among experts for pressing ahead.

Sir Graham Brady told the Observer there would also be widespread opposition from “across the House of Commons” if ministers tried to approve Covid jabs for school-age children before there was definite medical and scientific evidence in favour.

Brady, who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, said: “The JCVI has given extensive consideration to the pros and cons of vaccinating children and has concluded that the case has not been made. In my view, it would plainly be wrong to administer vaccines to children when it is not clearly to the benefit of that child’s own health.”

As MPs prepare to return to Westminster this week, Brady said he believed the 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs, who have opposed many of the government’s stricter lockdown measures, would be strongly against the move. MPs are not yet sure whether ministers will allow any vote on the issue.

It is understood that while health secretary Sajid Javid and the prime minister are keen to push ahead with vaccinations for young people if possible to curb the spread of the virus, the vaccines minister, Nadhim Zahawi, is cautious about doing so without a clear green light from scientists and medical experts.

Others in government are said to be concerned about the potential backlash were such a decision to cause illness among children, or provoke a wave of anxiety among parents if not clearly supported by scientific evidence.

Concerns were raised about the government’s plans for a booster campaign for double-vaccinated adults. With the virus circulating, there remains a risk to older people who were vaccinated in January, since their resistance to Covid may be waning.

The government has planned a booster campaign but is waiting for advice from the JCVI. However, the committee is waiting for early results from a scientific study at Southampton University, COV-Boost, looking at the safety of a third dose.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, did not comment on the decision about 12- to 15-year-olds, but urged ministers to wait for the advice on boosters.

“It’s important to let the JCVI do its job,” she said. “All the work on vaccinations has been highly evidence-based and that has to be the case for the boosters as well. It’s quite understandable that the JCVI is taking the time to make sure.

“The main issue is getting the vaccine into the arms of as many people as possible, as safely as possible, because broader coverage means greater protection. Ignoring scientific guidance might undermine confidence, and that would be really unhelpful.”

Questions remain about how a mass booster campaign would be delivered, with some suggestions that it would be done by GPs alongside flu jabs. The government plans to deliver 35m flu jabs this winter, amid concerns that people will be more vulnerable to the flu virus, but supply issues caused by a lack of lorry drivers means the programme has been delayed, and there are also shortages of sample bottles for blood tests.

The knock-on effect is causing immense strain on GPs, who are already under pressure. “We’re getting calls about 12- to 15-year- olds, about booster vaccination requests, about the shortage of blood bottles, and now about flu vaccination programmes, and that is on top of business as usual,” said Dr Gaurav Gupta, a Faversham GP who is chair of the Kent local medical committee.

“Patients are rightly upset because they can’t get through to us, but our phone lines are jammed with problems created elsewhere and dumped on us. We are getting very little support from NHS England and the government at the moment. There should be a central place for people to call and get information.”

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