Babies could be needlessly hospitalised this winter because the government has delayed a vaccine that protects them from a life-threatening virus, the UK’s top children’s doctor has warned.
Dr Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), said she was “frustrated” by delays in introducing a new vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which drives 30,000 hospital admissions each winter and leads to dozens of deaths.
She warned the delay meant thousands of children’s operations will have to be cancelled as RSV patients fill up beds – piling further pressure on already soaring waiting lists.
It comes after the UK’s most senior A&E doctor, Dr Adrian Boyle, told The Independent that the government’s failure to prepare the NHS for winter could see thousands of people die needlessly this year.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) said in June that a rollout of two RSV vaccines, one for babies and one for pregnant women, would be “cost-effective”, while the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said there was a “strong case” for a jab.
But it confirmed there was no timeframe for when vaccinations could start.
Doctors have issued an urgent warning for parents to get their children vaccinated against the flu and measles, mumps and rubella (MMR), following a “concerning” spike in child flu admissions in Australia.
RSV is very common in the UK and will infect most children before the age of two, often leading to a mild cough and cold. But in some rare cases, bronchiolitis or pneumonia can develop, which requires hospitalisation and can be fatal.
Dr Kingdon said of the vaccine delays: “We’re frustrated that if we had acted sooner, we might have at least reduced the extent of the impact this winter and we’ve missed an opportunity there.
“One of the aspects of winter that always fills us with dread, is that we know that we’ll end up having to stop elective surgical lists because our hospitals are at full capacity with all the infections that we see in winter.
“You’ve got to get ahead of the game ... We’re really disappointed that the programme hasn’t been rolled out in a way that is going to make an impact for this winter, because we’ve been talking about this endlessly, but there’s been a delay in activating the programme.”
Dr Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, questioned why there was a delay in the vaccine rollout and said last winter was “very difficult” for paediatric emergency medicine staff due to illnesses caused by respiratory viruses. He added: “The government is missing a trick by not prioritising this.”
One JCVI source told The Independent that introducing the vaccine this winter was “complicated” and that evidence was still being gathered on the “cost-benefit”.
The committee is yet to publish a full recommendation on the vaccine but when it does the government will have to accept the advice.
NHS data shows that from November to the end of December last year, an average of 119 children’s beds a day were unavailable due to RSV outbreaks.
Last winter, The Independent reported how children were regularly waiting more than 10 hours in A&E as hospitals battled RSV, flu, a strep A outbreak and Covid, adding pressure on stretched children’s intensive care services.
Dr Kingdon also urged parents to have their children vaccinated against the flu, as the jab becomes available for secondary school children for the first time in the UK.
She said: “I think we’ve got an opportunity to make sure that doesn’t happen here … Genuinely we’ve got such an important message to parents and children about the importance of getting the flu vaccine as soon as they’re offered it in the autumn term.”
Dr Boyle echoed her call, saying he was “anxious” about the UK’s flu season.
“Children had a miserable winter last year and I see no evidence we are more prepared this year,” he said.
The warnings come after the UKHSA recently raised concerns over a rise of measles cases in children. The agency warned London could see an outbreak of 100,000 cases if rates of vaccination are not improved.
Dr Kingdon urged parents to check their children’s MMR immunisation status.
She said: “Measles is more infectious than Covid. Please, please use the next six to eight weeks to get [children] a dose of MMR. Measles is not a trivial infection, and you know, it can cause very serious complications and death. If measles became a big problem, in addition to the other winter viruses, I think that would be really concerning.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “The NHS already offers monoclonal antibodies which provide protection against RSV to infants at very high risk.
“We are developing plans for delivering wider infant and adult RSV programmes, in collaboration with UKHSA, NHS England, and manufacturers. We will update in due course.”