illions of people are set to get a Covid-19 booster jab with scientists on the brink of approving the roll-out.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are talking about boosting many, many millions of people and therefore we want to get the strategy right on this. It’s highly likely that there will be a booster programme, it’s just a question of how we frame it. This will be decided over the next few weeks.”
As thousands of schools reopen for the autumn term, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson made clear that he would like to see the JCVI also approve Covid jabs for children.
“Speaking as a parent myself, I think parents would find it incredibly reassuring to know that they had a choice as to whether their child would be vaccinated or not,” he told Sky News.
In an apparent sign of growing impatience in government over the speed of JCVI decision-making, Mr Williamson said he hoped a ruling would be made “very, very soon”.
However, Professor Harnden revealed that the discussions about vaccines for children were “very finely balanced”, given that they are unlikely to get severely ill from coronavirus and could, in very rare cases, get an acute adverse reaction to the jab.
- The medical director of Public Health England moved to reassure parents as pupils return to classrooms after the summer holiday, saying schools are not the “drivers” or “hubs” of Covid-19 infection in communities. Dr Yvonne Doyle told BBC Breakfast: “There’ll be extra cleaning and hygiene, advice on ventilation (and) the testing is extremely important.”
- Mr Williamson did not rule out classes and assemblies having to take place outside in the event of coronavirus outbreaks in schools. But he said: “It is certainly not something that we’d be expecting to see an awful lot of, especially in autumn and winter.”
- Professor Calum Semple, who sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies but speaking in a personal capacity, described the decision to be taken by the JCVI on jabs for children as a “really difficult judgment”.
He told BBC Breakfast: “We’ve got a really fine balancing act between a rare side effect — which is very, very rare, which is myocarditis — and the low risk (from Covid) to children themselves.
“If, however, you take into the round the risks of impact on transmission to the wider society and disruption to schools, so you take a broader view of the benefit of vaccination, that might shift the decision around vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, but that’s a really difficult judgment.”
Professor Harnden signalled that older people, and other at-risk groups, could be the first to be offered a booster. “The elderly received vaccines a long time ago, so they are more likely to have waned, some of the clinically extremely vulnerable, the health and social care workers,” he explained.
The leading JCVI scientist said it was awaiting the results of the COV-Boost study, of seven different Covid-19 vaccines, which will shed light on whether a booster jab will have more effect if it involves mix-and-matching vaccines, for example people who had the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab for their first and second doses could next be offered the Pfizer/BioNTech one.
He also emphasised that the timing of delivering the booster would be crucial to ensure it has maximum impact. “What we don’t want to do is boost people and then find we have a new variant and we can’t boost them again because we’ve boosted them too soon and those people might not have needed the booster in the first place,” he said.
“So there’s a lot of very complicated modelling and data analysis that is going on about this at the moment.”
He said that once the JCVI had concluded its discussions on a booster recommendation, “strong” advice would be given to the Government and that it would be up to ministers to make the final decision.
Professor Harnden said that the decision on whether to offer the Covid jab to 12 to 15-year-olds was highly complex, and the committee was analysing the pros and cons before making its recommendation.
“Whatever we decide, we will do it in the children’s best interests no matter what other people outside the committee think,” he added.
“Now of course it is up to ministers as I say to make decisions, it’s not up to JCVI, but we will give some very strong advice.”
While not wishing to impinge on the JCVI’s independence, Mr Williamson said: “Probably a lot of us are very keen to hear that and very much hope that we’re in a position of being able to roll-out vaccinations for those who are under the age of 16. I would certainly be hoping that it is a decision that will be made very, very soon.”