Five- to 11-year-old children in England to be offered Covid vaccine

All children aged five to 11 in England will be offered a Covid vaccine, ministers have said in a long-awaited announcement, while emphasising that parents would be expected to make their own decision.

The rollout, described by the health secretary, Sajid Javid, as “non-urgent”, is set to begin in April in pharmacies, GP surgeries and vaccination centres, using Pfizer/BioNTech doses.

The announcement followed a recommendation by the Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) that the vaccine programme should be extended to younger children, after months of deliberation over the benefits and risks.

The move for England was brought forward by several days after similar announcements from Wales and Scotland. Stormont’s health minister, Robin Swann, confirmed Northern Ireland will mirror the policy.

Emphasising that the decision would be left to parents, Javid said: “The NHS will prepare to extend this non-urgent offer to all children during April so parents can, if they want, take up the offer to increase protection against potential future waves of Covid-19 as we learn to live with this virus.”

A government source said vaccination for this age group “would not be pushed in the same way” as the offer for adults and older children, with parents told it is available if wanted but no campaign or attempts at persuasion.

The main purpose of offering the vaccine to younger children, the JCVI said, was to protect against rare cases of severe illness in advance of a potential future coronavirus wave. However, the experts emphasised that the move should not be prioritised over other childhood vaccination programmes such as MMR and HPV, which have fallen behind during the pandemic.

In England, children are expected to be offered the jab through pharmacies, GPs and vaccine centres rather than through schools, and it is not clear whether parents will be contacted directly or need to come forward to request a jab.

The announcement for England was expected to be made next week alongside the government’s “living with Covid” strategy, but it appeared to be brought forward after Wales announced on Tuesday that it was pressing ahead with its own offer to five- to 11-year-olds following the JCVI advice.

The Welsh health minister, Eluned Morgan, accused the UK government of delaying the publication of the JCVI advice in order to have a “significant announcement” to include in the long-term plan for living with Covid.

“That’s not a good enough reason for us to postpone,” she said. “We didn’t want to dance to the timetable being set by what worked for the UK government. Our job is public protection, it’s not to march in step with whatever the UK government decides is their political priorities.”

While the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for five- to 11-year-olds in December, with the body concluding the jabs were safe and effective for this group, the JCVI previously announced that only vulnerable children in this age group would be offered a Covid jab.

As with the vulnerable cohort, the wider group of all five- to 11-year-olds will be offered 10-microgram doses of the Covid jabs – a third of the amount used for adults.

The pace of the rollout among children has been slow. In the last week of January, more than one in eight primary schoolchildren in England were infected with Covid – the highest prevalence for any age group at any stage of the pandemic.

The decision to extend Covid jabs to younger children has involved lengthy discussions.

While some scientists have argued they are necessary – citing concerns over high infection rates in schools, rising Covid-related hospitalisations in children and long Covid – others have stressed that the risk-benefit equation becomes finely balanced in younger age groups because Covid is generally a mild disease in childhood, long Covid is rarer, milder and less long-lasting than in adults, and Covid jabs are unable to prevent all transmission in any case.

The JCVI said it had also considered the impact of school absences, but that ultimately this did not tip the balance in favour of vaccinating because mild side-effects from the vaccine could also lead to some absences.

The main motivation was “future-proofing” younger age groups against possible future waves of infection, including the potential for a wave that might cause more severe illness.

It was announced in September last year that children aged 12 to 15 would be offered a Covid jab. The programme was later extended to offer a second dose, with some eligible for a booster, such as those in a clinical risk group. All 16- and 17-year-olds are eligible for two doses of a Covid jab and a booster.

Prof Azeem Majeed, the head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, said: “The benefits of vaccination are much greater for older people than young children because of the higher risks from Covid-19 in the elderly. Nonetheless, the evidence does suggest a benefit in children also and it’s good to see the UK finally approve vaccines in five- to 11-year-olds, even if it has lagged behind many other countries in making this decision.”

Prof Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the latest evidence showed that vaccination in younger age groups is safe, but that the benefits were unlikely to be great. “The risk of severe disease and long Covid in this age group was always much lower than older age groups, and given the high rate of prior infections, these risks are probably even lower now,” he said.


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