Political pressure appeared to be ramping up on experts advising on coronavirus jabs, with the Education Secretary saying he hoped a decision on vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds will be made “very, very soon”.
Gavin Williamson said the NHS is ready to go into schools to deliver jabs to that age group “if we get the get-go” from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
He said parents would find it “deeply reassuring” to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not, and said he is hoping there can be a rollout for under-16s.
But JCVI deputy chairman Professor Anthony Harnden said there are “many” arguments for and against jabs for younger children, and the committee – which is independent from Government – will decide “in the children’s best interests” without outside influence.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There’s many, many arguments for and against giving vaccines to 12 to 15-year-olds, and we’re deliberating on what we think as a committee is best for children.
“And that is the key thing: whatever we decide, we will do it in the children’s best interests no matter what other people outside the committee think.”
Mr Williamson told BBC Breakfast: “I think parents would find it deeply reassuring to have a choice of whether their children should have a vaccine or not.
“We obviously wait for the decision of (the) JCVI. 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.”
He said there is the capacity to both give Covid-19 vaccinations to 12 to 15-year-olds and deliver a booster programme.
Mr Williamson told Sky News it is not an “either/or” situation, adding: “It’s a situation about making sure we combat this virus as best as possible and we’re ready.
“If we get the get-go from (the) JCVI, we’re ready – the NHS, which has been so successful in rolling out this programme of vaccination, is ready to go into schools and deliver that vaccination programme for children.”
He told LBC radio he will “move heaven and earth” to avoid shutting schools again.
Prof Harnden also said it is “highly likely” there will be a Covid-19 vaccine booster programme, something former health secretary Jeremy Hunt has also called for.
It comes a day after the JCVI recommended third doses be given to people with severely weakened immune systems, who are likely to have been unable to mount an immune response from their first two jabs.
That group will cover around half a million people – less than 1% of the UK population – and the JCVI said the announcement was separate to any decision on a booster programme.
Mr Hunt said the situation in Israel, where the booster campaign that began in July with those aged over 60 has now been expanded to include anyone aged over 12, should guide the UK’s next steps.
He posted on Twitter to say that the “clear lesson for the UK seems to be get on with booster jabs, not just for the clinically vulnerable but for everyone”.
Prof Harnden said there is “a lot of very complicated modelling and data analysis” going on around any decision to roll out boosters.
He said the committee is awaiting results of the Cov-Boost study, which is looking at different vaccines “to see what immune responses they give to people that have had say Pfizer, Moderna or AstraZeneca, can we mix it, can we match it?”
Asked if boosters might not necessarily be for everyone, Prof Harnden told Today: “Well again we need to look at all that data. 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 “strong” advice will be given to the Government and that it will be up to ministers to make the decision.
Professor Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which advises the Government, said he would “applaud” the JCVI for being so “meticulous” in waiting for studies before advising on boosters, but pointed out that time is a factor.
He told Today: “If we wait for everything to report before making a judgment, we may well be past the time when we should have been making a decision.”
But Professor Saul Faust, director of the National Institute for Health Research Southampton clinical research facility and lead investigator for the Cov-Boost trial, said he understands the JCVI’s “wish and need to gather more evidence” before giving advice.
He told Today: “I think they’re not being at all hesitant.
“They’re simply saying they would like to assess more data, and they want to be sure that the benefit to children is significant, not just the benefit to society.”