In the last few days, the UK regulator has approved use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children who are aged 12-15. The MHRA said that after a “rigorous review”, it found that the benefits outweighed any risks. It has also been approved for the same age group in the US, Canada and the EU – with the Moderna jab approved in the US, and Germany planning to start vaccinating children over 12 from today.
One newspaper has reported that, in the UK, vaccines could be administered to children from as early as August as part of plans being drawn up in Whitehall. Currently ministers are waiting on advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which will make the final decision on whether inoculations become routine for the aforementioned age group.
Even before the regulatory approval came through, the subject of whether to vaccinate children has been incredibly controversial. Twitter isn’t always the best metric for understanding public sentiment, but you only had to look at the reaction to Jeremy Hunt’s recent post – a video of himself asking whether it was time to vaccinate children – and Lisa Nandy’s similar call to see how many are opposed to the idea.
— Jeremy Hunt (@Jeremy_Hunt) May 25, 2021
Labour calls for children vaccinated
— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) June 6, 2021
The main concern that people, parents or otherwise, have is that, in general, children’s risk from the vaccine could outweigh that of getting Coronavirus, which is extremely low. Although scientists did not find any major side effects in vaccine trials, these involved 2,000 children, whereas very rare side effects – by their nature – tend to be found when a vaccine gets rolled out to tens of thousands more people.
Worries about the risk ratio are not a “fringe” or anti-vax view, but shared among medical practitioners. For instance, Professor Russell Viner, former President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, has said: “Having a license doesn’t mean the vaccine should be used for all teenagers… Decisions about wider use in teenagers need to carefully balance the benefits and risks and the ethical issues involved in vaccinating children. The early reports about myocarditis in young men need to be properly investigated and may not be related to the Pfizer vaccine, however they provide a warning that we should not rush into these decisions.”
Another reason we have seen some strong reactions may simply be from people who didn’t realise that vaccinating children was an option. Even Kate Bingham, the Government’s vaccine tsar, warned in October 2020: “People keep talking about ‘time to vaccinate the whole population’, but that is misguided… There’s going to be no vaccination of people under 18. It’s an adult-only vaccine, for people over 50, focusing on health workers and care home workers and the vulnerable”. So it’s not surprising that many were not prepared for the idea.
There will be lots of reasons the Government is thinking about vaccines for children. For instance, although rare, some children have suffered from long Covid – there’s no doubt that high risk children need vaccinations – and there have additionally outbreaks among children in certain areas (Blackburn with Darwen).
The JCVI will also consider what’s best for wider society in its decision (for instance, whether vaccinating children will bring transmission rates to a more manageable level). On this note, it’s interesting that Israel stopped short of vaccinating its young, as it inoculated so many adults that it eliminated cases in children. Maybe in August we will face a similar situation.
Another big reason the Government will be thinking about vaccinating children is because of the educational disruption that Covid has caused. Throughout the pandemic, unions have been perhaps the most demanding group when it comes to calling for Covid measures – and are now calling for vaccinations for pupils “as matter of priority“. Saying that, they might now find themselves up against an even louder group: parents! As plenty don’t want their kids to have the jab.
One of the most important arguments to consider in this debate – which experts are increasingly pointing out – is that there are parts of the world suffering far more than the UK, the US or otherwise with their Covid rates. Is it moral that Germany is getting on with inoculating children when there are countries with high risk populations that aren’t vaccinated? It doesn’t seem right.
Dr Kate O’Brien, the World Health Organisation’s top vaccine expert, has warned that immunising children against Covid is not a high priority, and reminded politicians that there is insufficient vaccine supply for the whole world. “Immunisation of children in order to send them back to school is not the predominant requirement for them to go back to school safely,” were her words. “They can go back to school safely if what we’re doing is immunising those who are around them who are at risk.” Somehow, with the panic about variants and June 21, we seem to have forgotten that.