Covid vaccines will be offered to all 16- and 17-year-olds after new recommendations by the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which said they will not need the consent of parents.
The JCVI said 16- and 17-year-olds should be offered a first dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine and that advice on when to offer the second vaccine dose would come later.
“While Covid-19 is typically mild or asymptomatic in most young people, it can be very unpleasant for some and for this particular age group, we expect one dose of the vaccine to provide good protection against severe illness and hospitalisation,” the chair of the group’s Covid-19 subcommittee, Prof Wei Shen Lim, said.
The change comes two weeks after the body recommended against routine vaccination of children and said jabs for over-12s should be limited to those who were clinically vulnerable or lived with someone at risk.
Ministers are to accept the recommendation and the NHS will soon be instructed to start giving first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to about 1.4 million children. The deputy chief medical officer ProfJonathan Van Tam said the programme would not start immediately.
“Children are going to start going back to colleges and sixths forms from September, and in Scotland that will be slightly earlier, so there is no time to waste in getting on with this,” he told a press conference.
“I want us to proceed as fast as is practically possible. That isn’t going to be tomorrow, I don’t think it is likely to be early next week … I would expect this programme will start in a very short number of weeks.”
Vaccinations for healthy 12- to 15-year-olds will not be recommended in this phase but advice could change in the coming months as more evidence is studied.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said he had asked the NHS “to prepare to vaccinate those eligible as soon as possible”. He said the JCVI would “continue to review data and provide updates” if more age groups would be added to the recommendations.
“I encourage everyone who is eligible to come forward for both their jabs as quickly as possible,” he said.
Lim said 16-year-olds would not need their parents’ permission. “A person who is 16 years and above is deemed able to consent for themselves,” he said.
He said that although there were cases of severe illness in younger children, the vast majority had serious pre-existing conditions. Vaccinations have been recommended for under-16s who have severe neurodisabilities and those with underlying conditions that result in immunosuppression.
However, Van Tam said that list of conditions was likely to be expanded, saying it was “more likely rather than less likely that that list will broaden over time as data become available”.
Lim hinted it was likely that vaccination would be opened up for 12-15-year-olds when more data was available. “We will obviously want to try and protect them with vaccination as well, but that’s a decision we can’t make at this point or prefer not to make at this,” he said.
Older teenagers are in one of the groups with the highest levels of Covid infections, so offering vaccinations to children aged 16 and 17 could have a significant impact on dampening transmission.
Scientists on the JCVI have previously expressed some reticence about vaccinating children, saying the very small risk of side-effects had to be weighed up against the extremely low risk that Covid infection poses to children.
The JCVI said it had considered reports of heart inflammation among some younger adults who had the jab, but officials said this was considered to be “extremely rare”, affecting about one in 100,000 people vaccinated, with effects that were “mild” with a short recovery period.
Others, including the body’s chair, Prof Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which helped develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, have expressed doubts about whether healthy children in the UK should be prioritised when many high-risk adults across the world are yet to receive a vaccine.
Many countries with high vaccination rates, including Ireland, France, Germany and the US, have all recommended vaccinating over-12s and the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use for 12- to 17-year-olds by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
The decision has been welcomed by a number of scientists. Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist from the University of Leeds, said: “More than 9m doses have been given to adolescents in the US and more elsewhere, and whilst there’s obviously a need to understand certain adverse reactions including myocarditis [heart inflammation], the risk to children from Covid is clearly greater.
“This risk is even greater because of the high prevalence of the Delta variant in the UK at present, which may rise again in the autumn when schools return. In the absence of appropriate mitigations being established in English schools, I would suggest that vaccinating children is essential as a minimal duty of care. Over 5,000 under-18s were hospitalised in July 2021 alone, and the risk of long Covid remains unacceptable.”
Two members of a Sage subcommittee and several members of Independent Sage said they had submitted evidence to the Lancet that they claim shows benefits clearly outweigh risks for all 12- to 17-year-olds.
But the 18 scientists who submitted a “risk-benefit” paper to the Lancet – which has not yet been reviewed – said the decision could be “too little, too late” and put younger teenagers needlessly at risk.