Plans to vaccinate pupils aged 12 to 15 from Monday welcomed by Blackpool's health boss and MPs
As the Government announces youngsters aged between 12 and 15 will be offered their first dose of a Covid jab from Monday, the resort's public health boss urged parents to sign their consent forms.
Children in England will be able to get their first Pfizer vaccination from Monday, after chief medical officers (CMOs) ruled the jabs would "keep pupils in the classroom."
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the decision to roll out jabs to youngsters aged 12 to 15 took into account the "extremely powerful" evidence on the impact of the pandemic on children’s education, as well as the risks to their mental health from missing school.
Dr Arif Rajpura, Blackpool Council's director of Public Health, welcomed plans to vaccinate younger people - and urged resort parents to sign the consent form.
Dr Rajpura said: "I welcome the vaccination of 12 to15 year olds as the marginal health benefits combined with the reduction in disruption to school education make it appropriate to vaccinate this group.
"I would urge Blackpool parents to provide consent for their children to have the Covid vaccination for their 12 to 15 year olds."
Some three million British children could be eligible for the jab, with vaccinations expected to be given through schools.
The Delta variant of the virus, which is more easily transmitted, has at times forced entire school year groups to return to remote learning across the Fylde coast - even after lockdown ended.
Last week, six pupils at St Teresa's Catholic Primary School in Cleveleys were sent home just one day after the end of the summer holidays, after a pupil tested positive for the virus.
Mr Javid said the Pfizer jabs will be offered to secondary school pupils over the age of 12 to prevent further disruption to learning.
"I have accepted the recommendation from the chief medical officers to expand vaccination to those aged 12 to 15 – protecting young people from catching Covid-19, reducing transmission in schools and keeping pupils in the classroom,” he said.
The move was also welcomed by Blackpool's Tory MPs, who both said vaccinating children aged 12 and over in secondary schools should help to reduce infections.
Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard said: “I am sure parents and children will welcome the opportunity, and the fact it is voluntary.
"I do hope enough information is provided to reassure parents.
"While it might be an organisational challenge in the short term for schools, I believe it will help stabilise children’s education in the longer term, as well as reducing cross-infection in both families and school settings”.
His Blackpool South counterpart, MP Scott Benton, added: “We know that vaccinations are our best defence against the virus – they have already prevented more than 112,000 deaths, more than 143,000 hospitalisations, and over 24 million infections.
"They have built a vast wall of defence for the British people.
“And now, following advice from the UK’s four Chief Medical Officers, from next week 12 to 15-year-olds will be invited to receive a first dose in a schools-based vaccination programme – as other countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Israel and the USA already are.
“Parental, guardian, or carer consent will be sought in line with existing programmes.
“This move will help to prevent further community transmission of Covid in the winter months and help to minimise the disruption to pupils’ education in schools.”
In Fylde, MP Mark Menzies added: "I’m pleased those aged 12 to 15 are being given the chance to take up the vaccine. While this age group are at a lower risk, the more people vaccinated, the better. There is less chance of a younger person carrying Covid and passing it to more vulnerable family and friends.
"It has been the most difficult two years for children and teachers – anything we can do to help keep the school year on track for all concerned is most welcome."
However, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) did not give its recommendation for the plans, as the virus "presents a very low risk for healthy children" and vaccination would only offer a "marginal benefit."
But it suggested that the wider issues, such as education, should be taken into consideration and examined by CMOs.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, from the JCVI, said there was “no conflict” between the advice provided by the JCVI and that from the CMOs, adding that the JCVI had looked at jabs from a health perspective.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said it had been a “difficult decision” regarding vaccinating children but CMOs would not be recommending the jabs “unless we felt that benefit exceeded risk”.
But one Tory MP, who also works as a GP, spoke out against the decision to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds, insisting she was “not comfortable” with the reasoning behind it.
Dr Caroline Johnson was among several Tory MPs to raise concerns with the policy after vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi confirmed plans would go ahead.
Dr Johnson said: “I have given many vaccines in my time, including hundreds more recently of Covid vaccines, but I am not comfortable with vaccinating teenagers to prevent educational disruption.
"No child needs to isolate under current rules if they are a contact – only if they are a positive case and the maximum in that case would be eight days of schooling. That is if they caught it during term time.
"Half of children have already had coronavirus and are very likely to get it again. Does the minister really believe that vaccinating three million children to prevent an average of four days of school or less is really reasonable?"
Mr Zahawi replied: “All I would say [to her] is I think it is important the Government accepts the final decision, the unanimous decision, of the four chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland."
The Government also revealed that youngsters who wanted to be vaccinated but did not have parental consent could still be jabbed - by undergoing an assessment of their competency for decision-making via a so-called "Gillick test."
But the decision to allow pupils to override parents' consent - if the Gillick test deems them to have sufficient intelligence to understand what is being proposed - sparked backlash from some medics and ministers.
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, said he would "not feel comfortable" about a 12-year-old being jabbed without parental consent.
He said: "I think we have to be really careful that we go by the law, and the law clearly states that the child and parent should try to come to an agreed conclusion.
“But if the child wants to go ahead or doesn’t want to go ahead and the parent feels absolutely the opposite, then the clinician involved in administering the vaccine needs to be absolutely sure that the child is competent to make that decision.
“There will be a grade of competency from the age of 16 downwards, so 14 to 15-year-olds may be deemed competent to make that decision on their own, but it’s less likely that a 12 or 13-year-old will be deemed competent."
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith also warned “family disputes” could emerge over the decision on whether or not a child should be jabbed.
Sir Iain said: "Where there is a dispute we say that the school makes a decision as to whether or not that child has the capacity to make that decision.
“Now, we know, and this is the point, the pressure will grow on the child. This greater good concept which says ‘Well the school may be in trouble if you don’t take the vaccine and your class may be in deep difficulty’.
“There is no way of legislating for that. I simply say [to Mr Zahawi], this is a real problem for us, it will lead to disputes in families and real problems about children’s mental health in the opposite direction as they are put under pressure.”
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi assured ministers that youngsters could only be jabbed without parental consent after meeting with a clinician.
He added that for children in the care system, consent would be sought from the young person's carer.