Teaching unions have warned that schools must be kept out of any potential controversies over Covid vaccinations for older children after government scientists finally approved the mass rollout of jabs for 12- to 15-year-olds.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said teachers were being put in an “invidious” position and called on ministers to confirm the programme would be overseen by specialist medical teams.
With Sajid Javid, the health secretary, set to formally endorse the advice, ministers and the NHS aim to push ahead immediately with the jabs. One NHS trust has told schools it expects the first injections to be completed within six weeks.
Announcing the joint decision on Monday by the UK’s four chief medical officers, Chris Whitty, who holds the post in England, stressed that there was scientific consensus about the programme, despite a series of delays which left ministers visibly frustrated.
Whitty defended a convoluted process that saw him and his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland review an initial refusal by the government’s vaccine watchdog to rule out wholesale vaccinations of older children, saying this simply reflected a more nuanced subject matter.
“What we would really regret is getting the decision wrong,” Whitty told a press conference. “Some decisions are completely barn-door obvious. If you’re talking to someone who’s 85 and they’re choosing not to get vaccinated, the short answer is, just get the jab, this is going to have a very high chance of stopping you dying. Whereas this is a more difficult one.”
While Whitty stressed the rollout of what will initially be a single Pfizer jab for all 12- to 15-year-olds was an “offer”, which was recommended but not mandated, teaching unions have expressed concern about schools becoming caught up in issues of consent, or having to deal with anger from anti-vaccination groups.
Whitemansaid: “It is essential that the government immediately confirms that the process surrounding vaccinations will be run and overseen entirely by the appropriate medical teams.
“Where parents have questions, including about important matters such as consent, these must be handled by those same medical teams. There must be no delay in confirming this otherwise school leaders will be put in an impossible position of facing questions to which they simply do not have the answers.”
Some school leaders had received “threatening letters” about their buildings being used for vaccination, Whiteman said, saying this underlined the need for clear guidance.
Rachael Warwick, executive head of the Ridgeway Education Trust in Didcot, Oxfordshire, said she had received a handful of letters warning that named school leaders in the trust could be held personally liable for any adverse reactions to vaccines, saying ministers should make it clear this was not the case.
Asked about the issue of consent, if children disagreed with their parents, Whitty stressed that this only happened in “a small number of cases”, and when it did there were very clear guidelines setting out how to decide issues for children in this ahe group.
“Doctors, GPs, paediatricians, people involved in vaccinations, are really used to doing this,” he said.
While a series of other countries have pressed ahead with mass vaccinations for older children, so far in the UK these have only been offered to those with health conditions.
Ten days ago the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said that while the health gains from vaccinating the entire age group were greater than the risks, “the margin of benefit is considered too small” to support it.
But at the same time, the it invited ministers to ask Whitty and his counterparts to look further at the issue, taking into account wider factors outside the JCVI’s remit, such as the possible impact of vaccinations in minimising school disruption.
This had been key to the eventual approval, Whitty said, saying the chief medical officers’ decision was in no way a repudiation of the JCVI decision, but simply built on it.
There was, Whitty said, “extremely powerful evidence” about the toll on children of schools being closed, and on their mental health, particularly so for people in deprived communities.
Vaccination would not necessarily stop this, but would help, Whitty said: “We do not think that this is a panacea, it is not a silver bullet, but we think it is an important and potentially useful additional tool to help reduce the public health impacts that come through educational disruption.”
He added: “We are confident about reducing disruption. We are also confident this will not eliminate disruption.”
When taking this and the direct health impact into account, he said, “the benefit exceeded the risk to a sufficient degree that we are recommending to our ministers in all four nations that they make a universal offer – and I stress the word offer – of vaccination to children aged 12 to 15”.
All children in the age group will be offered a first Pfizer jab as soon as possible, with the programme led by in-school vaccination services. A second injection will be potentially given once more evidence is gathered, so not before the spring term at the earliest.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said they had received the advice, adding: “We will set out the government’s decision shortly.”
The JCVI has been also considering how many people should receive third, booster Covid jabs, with an announcement also due imminently, ahead of Boris Johnson setting out the government’s plan for combating the virus over winter on Tuesday.
Ministers have already said they will proceed with some form of booster programme, and it is expected this will be targeted at people aged 50 and above, or those with a clinical vulnerability.