The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has resisted intense pressure from ministers by refusing to recommend coronavirus vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds.
Yesterday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said parents would find it “deeply reassuring” if children were given jabs, and leaks from Whitehall insiders suggested the JCVI was ready to sign off on vaccines for teenagers as schools return in England.
Yet although the vaccination programme has been expanded to cover more children with underlying health conditions, the JCVI has not approved vaccination for the entire age cohort.
This comes despite encouraging data on safety from the United States, where children have been receiving the vaccine for some time, as they have in France, Germany, Israel and the Netherlands.
There have been rare reports of heart inflammation in teenagers who get the vaccine, and the idea of giving a potentially risky jab to people who are very unlikely to get severely ill struck scientists as unethical.
The JCVI told the government that “the health benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms”, but the uncertainty around risks like this mean it has not recommended expanding the vaccine programme.
The other issue is the potential waste involved in vaccinating teenagers when older people and healthcare workers in other countries still cannot get access to the vaccine, something which is known to weigh heavily in the minds of several JCVI members.
This leaves the government with a difficult decision if the return of pupils to schools in England prompts a significant rise in cases of COVID-19, as experts are predicting it will.
Either it can overrule the JCVI – something the committee itself suggested was possible, as ministers could take into account wider issues such as disruption to education which it did not look at – or it can attempt to hold back the virus by other methods.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the COVID-19 strategic response director for Public Health England, has urged pupils to get tested regularly in order to reduce transmission.
Does the government believe its test and trace system is up to the job?
We are about to find out if the billions it cost have been well spent.