Delays to the Covid-19 vaccination programme for 12- to 15-year-olds could push immunisations into the Christmas period as local health teams target vaccine-hesitant parents with Zoom sessions and “mop-up” clinics are planned for isolating pupils who miss jabs in schools.
Headteachers have called for more resources to speed up the scheme as it becomes clear that the government’s target for the programme to be completed by half-term will be missed.
Public health teams in Stockport and Oldham have advised schools that Covid vaccinations sessions will run until mid- to late November. Schools elsewhere, including in north London, Watford and Staffordshire, have been told that they will not be visited by vaccination teams until next month. Other headteachers are still waiting to be given a date.
Five education unions yesterday wrote to the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, urging him to reintroduce safety measures in schools, including social distancing, bubbles and face masks in secondary schools.
Covid-19 cases are falling among almost every age group in England, apart from schoolchildren and their parents’ generation. More than 200,000 pupils were off school for Covid-related reasons last week, up 67% from the week before. Rising Covid cases in schools have prompted renewed restrictions in some areas. Public health officials in Cambridgeshire have asked schools to bring back mask-wearing and social distancing, while some schools in Kingston, in London, have staggered finish times.
Some local NHS teams have asked pupils to isolate if a sibling tests positive. Suffolk county council has been accused of introducing “vaccine apartheid” by telling parents that if children have not been vaccinated, they should stay at home for up to a week if one sibling tests positive. Vaccinated children would be allowed to continue to attend school as normal if a sibling contracts Covid.
High transmission rates have affected vaccinations as pupils who test positive have to wait for 28 days before they can be immunised. Vaccine “mop-up” clinics are now being planned by local health teams to pick up children who miss getting their jab in school. They will also cater for those year 7 children who turn 12 after the first wave has been administered. Local vaccination teams are at full stretch as they must also administer the flu vaccine programme in schools, which has been extended this year to cover all pupils.
Geoff Baron, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There is increasing frustration among school leaders about delays to the rollout of Covid vaccinations for 12- to 15-year-olds. We are at a loss to understand why the government has not placed more focus on ensuring this happens as quickly as possible.
“The main issues appear to be where healthcare teams don’t have enough staff on hand to vaccinate so many students at once, and where demand for the vaccine has outstripped supply.”
Councils and local health officials are meanwhile running “vaccination webinars” to persuade reluctant parents to give consent for their children to be jabbed in school. Official take-up rates have yet to be released, but health officials have expressed concern that if they follow the pattern of adults, children in disadvantaged areas will be less likely to be immunised and therefore more likely to have their schooling disrupted.
Parents across the country, including the London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Haringey, Greenwich and Merton, and in Leicestershire, are being invited to webinars to put concerns to clinicians and vaccine professionals. At a session last week by Barnet council attended by about 100 parents, health officials were quizzed about whether children who have already had Covid and have natural immunity should still be jabbed and why the UK has embarked on vaccinations for children when other countries have not.myocarditis, inflammation of the heart muscle, and possible changes to girls’ menstruation cycles were also discussed. Some families raised fears that their refusal to give consent would not be respected.
Health officials reassured families that only pupils with “explicit parental consent” would receive the jab on school vaccination days. They said “processes” were currently being devised for administering the jab to children who want it but do not have parental consent and are assessed as capable of understanding the decision-making process and health implications – known as the “Gillick competence”.