All children aged 12 to 15 will be offered one dose of the Covid vaccine from next week, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi has confirmed.
Making an announcement in the Commons, Mr Zahawi said the rollout will move “with the same sense of urgency we’ve had at every point in our vaccination programme”.
He insisted “no one should be stigmatised” with this vaccination programme and parental consent will be needed for vaccinations of 12 to 15-year-olds.
But children can overrule parents who do not want them to get the jab if deemed “competent”.
This confirmation comes after the UK’s four chief medical officers recommended a universal rollout of the Pfizer jab to three million more children after concluding it would reduce outbreaks in schools.
They warned of the mental health impacts, particularly on children from deprived areas, of missing more classes this autumn and winter.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid accepted the advice meaning a mass rollout of jabs will begin on school grounds within days – but he was criticised for not starting it earlier.
Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth asked Mr Zahawi in the Commons whether parental consent would be needed for children to receive jabs and whether it would be administered by an existing NHS programme for other vaccines given to children.
Mr Zahawi said the NHS is “incredibly efficient and well equipped” in providing jabs to children already, and said an existing programme which visits schools would be used for the Covid jab.
Labour’s Florence Eshalomi told the Commons the black and ethnic minority community will be hesitant to encourage their children to take up the vaccine, and if there is up take up in schools “they will make sure their children aren’t in school that day”.
She asked what support will be available to properly inform the communities to ensure their kids are vaccinated.
Mr Zahawi said it’s important not to stigmatise any parent and added “there will be an extensive information programme that the school vaccination team will deliver and work with schools”.
Tory MP Steve Baker raised the point of stigmatisation once more in the Commons asking if a child’s vaccination status will affect their ability to receive an education equally with their peers.
The Vaccines Minister said “that will not be used in anyway” as the purpose of this is to “protect children”.
Local NHS teams are on standby to administer vaccines in portakabins in playgrounds, gyms and assembly halls converted into temporary vaccination centres.
Jabs such as HPV and Diphtheria, Tetanus and Polio are already given in schools, supported by GPs and community pharmacies.
Booster jabs for adults are also expected to be confirmed today after Boris Johnson let slip that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation had given them the green light.
On a visit, he told reporters: “That’s going ahead, that’s already been approved, I think that’s a good thing.
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“Ministers are expected to recommend that all adults over 50 should get a third dose, probably of the Pfizer vaccine, six months after their second jab.
The plan to offer younger secondary school children jabs has been fraught with difficulty because the virus generally affects children less severely than adults.
It comes despite the JCVI deciding just 10 days ago not to recommend mass vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds.
The JCVI had said Covid-19 presents a very low risk for healthy children and vaccination would only offer a marginal benefit.
But they suggested that the wider issues, such as education, should be taken into consideration and examined by CMOs.
At a Downing Street press conference, Professor Wei Shen Lim, from the JCVI, insisted there was therefore “no conflict” between their advice and that from health chiefs.
England’s CMO Prof Chris Whitty said it had been a “difficult decision” but that they would not be recommending the jabs “unless we felt that benefit exceeded risk”.
They reached their conclusion without factoring in the medical benefits of jabbing more children to adults, who are substantially more likely to die from Covid.
He added: “What we’re not trying to do is say to children ‘you must, must, must, must, must’ but what we’re saying is that we think on balance the benefits, both at an individual level and in terms of wider indirect benefits to education and through that to public health, are in favour, otherwise we would not be making this recommendation.”
Prof Whitty added there were “no plans at the moment” to extend the vaccines roll-out to primary school age children.
In reaching their decision, the health chiefs consulted experts including the Royal College of GPs and the Royal College of Paediatrics.
They concluded that while the vaccine for children was not a “silver bullet” it could dramatically reduce the disruption to schooling.
Clinical evidence shows that a single dose of Pfizer cuts the risk of catching the Delta variant 55%, cuts transmission, and prevents most severe illness and death.
Prof Whitty said: “The effects of disrupted education, or uncertainty, on mental health are well recognised.
“There can be lifelong effects on health if extended disruption to education leads to reduced life chances.
“Whilst full closures of schools due to lockdowns is much less likely to be necessary in the next stages of the epidemic, UK CMOs expect it to continue to be prolonged and unpredictable.
“Local surges of infection, including in schools, should be anticipated for some time. Where they occur, they are likely to be disruptive.”
Teachers’ leaders welcomed the decision – but said it should have been taken earlier with children jabbed over the summer.
Dr Mary Bousted of the National Education Union said: “While we recognise that a decision on vaccinating children needed careful evidential judgement, it would have been better if a decision could have been made earlier during the summer holidays. It will now be well into the autumn before the impact of the vaccination programme will be felt.
Dr June Raine, from the medicines safety regulator, said the side effects for 12 to 15-year-olds being vaccinated were mild.
Scientists have warned that children can also suffer heart issues as a result of getting Covid, and seem more susceptible to long Covid.
The jabs roll-out has so far been limited to children with health problems.