Children aged 16 and 17 across the UK could be given access to Covid vaccinations in the coming days, according to Nicola Sturgeon, after it emerged that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was reconsidering its advice for young people.
Just two weeks after the body recommended against routine vaccination of children, the Scottish first minister revealed that she “hoped” over-16s would get the go-ahead to receive it after all.
Two government sources confirmed that the JCVI was looking again at widening its recommendation for children over 12. Jabs for this age group are currently limited to those who are clinically vulnerable or live with someone at risk.
Anthony Harnden, a member of the committee, said: “JCVI is in the process of finalising updated advice on the offer of vaccination of children and young people.”
Ministers are believed to have been in favour of older children getting access to the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, but the JCVI said they should not routinely be available to children who do not have a specific risk factor.
One of the concerns that the scientists raised, linked to the Pfizer jab, was about inflammation around the heart, with the JCVI concluding that the benefits did not outweigh the risk to those who would be receiving the jabs.
The government is hoping the country is past the worst of the third wave, with daily new cases of Covid across the UK falling to 21,691 on Tuesday and hospital admissions dropping to 731. There were 138 deaths. However, concerns remain about the possibility of the rate of new cases rising again once schools go back in September, at the same time as many employers are expecting more workers to return to the office.
Older teenagers are currently one of the groups with the highest levels of Covid infections, so offering vaccinations to over-16s could potentially have a significant impact in dampening transmission.
Prof Rowland Kao, a participant in the the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) and an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said: “Per capita, older teenagers currently have the highest risk of Covid-19 infection, and vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds should reduce this.
“Current evidence also suggests that, even when vaccinated individuals get infected, they both are at lower risk of severe disease and their viral load drops more quickly than for unvaccinated individuals, with the likely consequence that they are less likely to infect others, though this is difficult to prove directly.
“Thus it is likely that vaccinating older teens will not only protect them, but also help protect others and dampen down any further waves of infection that may occur.
“This of course must be counter-balanced by the evidence for occasional side-effects of the vaccines themselves, for which there is some evidence that they occur with higher frequency in younger adults and older teens.
“While this risk is low, it is important that the evidence on which any decision that is made on further vaccination of older teens is made clear.”
Making a statement to the Scottish parliament on Tuesday afternoon, Sturgeon said she was “hoping” to get the updated advice from the JCVI “over the next day or so”.
During the subsequent question-and-answer session with MSPs, Sturgeon said: “The JCVI are our advisory body so they have to give us the advice they think is right and I respect that. I am hoping it will recommend going further on the vaccination of young people.
“I am particularly concerned if possible to get vaccinations to 16- and 17-year-olds, which is obviously important for those who will be, for example, going to college and university and mingling with older young people who are vaccinated. But we’ll see what that advice brings and we stand ready to implement that as quickly as possible.”
She later said she was hoping and “veering towards expecting” the committee to recommend further vaccination of people in the 12- to 18-year-olds age group, and in particular “hopeful that we will see some updated recommendations in relation, as a priority as a first part of this, for 16- and 17-year-olds”.
Children over 12 with certain health conditions and those who live with vulnerable people were added to the vaccine programme last month, but the JCVI said it could identify little benefit in doing so for all 12- to 17-year-olds, although other countries including the US and Canada have taken the step.
Sturgeon recently called for the committee to keep this under review, saying it was “extremely important that this is not ruled out here”.
Scotland’s chief medical officer wrote to the JCVI at that time asking for the benefit of vaccinating all 12- to 17-year-olds to be “kept under close and ongoing review”.
Boris Johnson is due to visit Scotland on Wednesday and Thursday, but has declined an offer from the first minister to meet to discuss the recovery from the pandemic.
In a letter to Sturgeon, the prime minister highlighted her recent meetings with the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, and said he was looking forward to meeting soon, but made no reference to a date.