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UK to offer Covid vaccines to 12-to-15-year olds as part of winter plan


Covid-19 vaccines updates

Covid-19 jabs will be offered to all children in the UK aged between 12 and 15 as early as next week, as medical leaders’ concerns mount over a fresh wave of infections in schools in the autumn.

The decision is part of Boris Johnson’s “autumn and winter plan” for the pandemic that will be published on Tuesday. The prime minister will confirm Covid booster jabs will be given to the most vulnerable and is expected to warn that some restrictions could be reintroduced if the NHS faces too much pressure in the coming months.

Johnson will host a Downing Street press conference that will set out how he hopes to avoid a further nationwide lockdown with “a renewed focus on vaccines” along with heightened public health messaging and the test and trace programme. He will insist that all evidence and data will be kept under review.

“The pandemic is far from over, but thanks to our phenomenal vaccine programme, new treatments and testing we are able to live with the virus without significant restrictions on our freedoms,” Johnson said, adding that the government must “protect the gains we have made”.

The chief medical officers of the four UK nations concluded that universal vaccination for those over 12 was necessary on mental health grounds and to avoid educational disruption. The vaccines will be offered to children through the school immunisation programme.

Sajid Javid, health secretary, indicated on Monday evening that he had agreed. “I have accepted the unanimous recommendation from the UK Chief Medical Officers to offer vaccination to those aged 12 to 15,” he wrote on Twitter. “This will protect young people from catching COVID-19, reduce transmission in schools and help keep pupils in the classroom.”

Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, and his counterparts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales outlined their recommendation on Monday in a letter to the health secretaries of the four nations.

“The additional likely benefits of reducing educational disruption, and the consequent reduction in public health harm from educational disruption, on balance provide sufficient extra advantage in addition to the marginal advantage at an individual level identified by the [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation] to recommend in favour of vaccinating this group,” said the letter.

The return of schools in England has led to an uptick in cases among younger age groups. About 67,000 cases were recorded among under-20s in the week ending on September 6, a 50 per cent increase on the previous week, before schools returned.

In Scotland, where schools returned in mid-August, infections among children aged 14 and under peaked at about 1,400 cases per 100,000 in the week to September 6. As a result, daily cases in Scotland rose above 7,000 a day for the first time in the pandemic. About 5 per cent of children in Scotland have been absent from school because of Covid-related reasons each day in September, government figures showed.

The vaccination announcement was welcomed by some teaching unions. Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the move was a “vital step forward” in reducing the impact of coronavirus on school-aged children.

First doses of the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine have been available to 16 and 17-year-olds, alongside some children aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable or living with an immunosuppressed relative, after the UK’s vaccine advisory group stalled on inoculating healthy children over concerns about rare cases of severe heart inflammation.

As of September 5, nearly 140,000 under-16s in England had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

The JCVI, which advises the UK government, is yet to conclude whether children will be offered a second dose as most rare side effects have been shown to emerge after the second dose. In early September, the committee deferred the decision on first doses for children to the chief medical officers after concluding that the benefits of vaccination for the individual were too marginal.

“If ministers accept the advice, the medical officers will want the JCVI to give a view on second doses in this age cohort once more data has been accrued internationally,” the letter added. “This will not be before the spring term.”

But a JCVI member told the Financial Times their approval of second doses for adolescents was “by no means a certainty” and they may end up opting for a 12-week gap between the two doses.

The chief medical officers said ministers should engage experts from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Royal College of General Practitioners on how to approach the issue of consent from parents.

The JCVI is this week expected to lay out its recommendation for a widescale booster programme in the autumn.

The committee is set to recommend that all over-70s and clinically vulnerable individuals should receive a third dose of a Covid-19 vaccine between six and eight months after their second dose.

In light of data from Southampton university’s CovBoost study, AstraZeneca recipients will receive a Pfizer third dose, while Pfizer recipients will be given a third Pfizer shot.

Additional reporting by John Burn-Murdoch

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