Before Britain vaccinates children, should it vaccinate the world? | Gaby Hinsliff

They started queuing along the beach road first thing in the morning, and before long the line of young people stretched out of sight.

When a drop-in centre in the Scottish seaside town of Troon offered Covid jabs to anyone over 18 on Sunday, Generation Z responded in droves, as they did to a similar offer in the London suburb of Twickenham last week.

Although the under-30s are only being called up en masse from today, doctors have already begun reaching out to students and even sixth-formers wherever they can. A friend’s 17-year-old thought the GP’s surgery had texted him by mistake, but was told his asthma qualified him for a shot. In Wales, 18-year-olds have been eligible since late May. But as the vaccination age plummets gratifyingly across the country, a difficult decision looms over whether and when to start immunising children.

Blackburn’s director of public health has already pleaded for over-12s in the area – suffering the highest infection rates in England – to be offered jabs, after regulators declared the Pfizer version safe for this age group. In the US, high-school students are already rolling up their sleeves, and the British government’s former chief scientific adviser Prof David King wants teenagers here to follow suit as soon as possible.

But Britain’s independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has been genuinely divided over the ethics of vaccinating children, given how vanishingly unlikely they are to get seriously ill themselves. Its members want to be clear about who is driving new outbreaks now that pubs, dinner parties and dating are back, shifting the focus to 20- to 35-year-olds bursting free of lockdown. They must weigh the benefits for kids of not missing any more education, and of avoiding long Covid or rare medical complications from the virus, against any risk (however small) of vaccine side-effects and the chance that children may get enough protection simply from adults around them being jabbed.

Some parents will wonder why, if school outbreaks are so worrying, ministers don’t bring back compulsory masks in class. Others will be anxious about giving their children such a new vaccine, although by summer they’ll have the reassurance of seeing how it’s gone in the US.

Personally I was thrilled to get my vaccine and would be more than happy for my son to have it, but what brought me up short was the question I saw posed recently by the epidemiologist Adam Kucharski: if rich countries have enough vaccine left to jab children at incredibly low risk of serious illness and death, why aren’t they offering it to poorer countries where people are dying for lack of it? Shouldn’t we be taking more seriously the threat not just of humanitarian crises, but of a more resistant variant emerging in some place where the virus is currently raging out of control, fatally undermining the vaccines that remain our only real route to freedom?

Only 2% of sub-Saharan Africa has had a first dose. Thailand, engulfed by a severe outbreak, is only just beginning mass vaccinations. Even if the G7 summit agrees this week to invest billions in ramping up vaccine production for poorer countries – as a group of former world leaders led by Gordon Brown wants – that takes months to come on stream.

If Britain doesn’t want to seal its borders – and nothing in ministers’ confused approach to foreign holidays suggests they do – then digging an ever-stronger domestic firebreak against the more contagious Delta variant we have just imported from India won’t be enough. We’re going to need a global firebreak against something worse evolving too, and fast.

When Dominic Cummings first tweeted a photograph of the Downing Street whiteboard on which he sketched out a Covid strategy in March last year, many were shocked by the bluntness of the question scribbled at the bottom: “Who do we not save?” But ultimately pandemic politics revolves around asking just that.

This virus forces governments everywhere into horrendous decisions about who or what they’re willing to sacrifice for the greater good: how many jobs (and how much poverty) they’ll risk to save lives in lockdowns; how many might die if routine operations are cancelled to free up beds for Covid patients; how much of a surge in cases people will accept in return for relaxing restrictions. But increasingly the toughest choices involve relationships with, and obligations to, the outside world.

By prioritising the vaccination of 12-year-olds who are at a vanishingly small risk of serious illness this August over making more shots available immediately to countries in dire need, Britain and other western countries would be visibly choosing not to save lives overseas. Perhaps many would find that choice depressingly easy to live with, despite a recent Save the Children poll showing 67% of the British public supported sharing vaccines in theory; after all, the few million doses British teenagers might use this summer would be even more of a drop in the ocean than the 100m Boris Johnson is expected to offer the world by the end of this year, which is in itself only a fraction of what’s ultimately needed.

But by concentrating too many of our efforts at home, we could paradoxically be jeopardising lives here too. At best we’d be taking a punt on an under-vaccinated world beyond our borders, into which westerners are desperate to plunge – for holidays but also work, family reunions and all the countless reasons people cross borders – and from which someone may well return harbouring an explosive new variant.

The odds are obviously higher for some children than others. Those who are shielding or clinically vulnerable should get the jab if it’s safe for them, for example. There’s a strong case for vaccinating 17- and 18-year-olds, both because older teenagers seem to react to the virus much like young adults do, and to help keep them at school in the run-up to A-levels. In a localised crisis such as Blackburn’s, vaccinating children should surely be an option. And once this becomes a routine annual jab, not a race against time in a pandemic, the argument changes again.

But as a parent, I can’t shake the feeling that prioritising the universal vaccination of children now in areas with barely a handful of cases, while a storm that knows no borders builds overseas, looks both morally unjust and practically shortsighted. If the JCVI concludes that vaccinating children this August is genuinely essential, then at the very least we should balance that with a far more generous and speedy offer to the rest of the world than is currently on the table. History won’t forgive us for calling this one wrongly.


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