Giving teenagers the vaccine will help manage disruption to schools and mitigate against the impact of a potential winter Covid “surge”, England’s chief medical officer has said, as he warned of “substantial transmission” amid older pupils.
Professor Chris Whitty made the case for 12 to 15-year-olds to get the jab during a hearing of the Parliamentary education committee this afternoon.
Teenagers are due to start receiving their vaccines in schools this week after the UK’s chief medical officers advised ministers to proceed.
Whitty was quizzed about the programme alongside deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam and Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI Covid-19 sub-committee.
Also appearing were Dr Camilla Kingdon from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and Professor Keith Willett from NHS England.
The educational benefits of a move to vaccinate younger children was questioned in light of the change in August which means under-18s who are close contacts of confirmed cases no longer have to self-isolate unless they themselves test positive.
However, the move has not ended disruption to schools, with attendance figures published yesterday showing that more than 100,000 pupils were off with either a confirmed or suspected case as of last Thursday.
Modelling suggests vaccine could prevent 12m school lost days
Today, Whitty pointed to modelling released last week, which suggested the impact of vaccinating the age group could result prevent 12 million days of absence, though the lower end of the modelling suggests the saving could be closer to 110,000 days.
He said testimony from across the UK was that “in some areas, the disruption has been repeated and if there’s even small amounts more, the impact of that could be very substantial, in others much less so, this is not an evening out kind of situation”.
He said the modelling had predicted 12 million school says could be list “if we would have a significant surge over winter”.
“Now, I do not know, you do not know, and nobody knows what kind of surges we’re going to have over time and how we will have to respond to them, but I think what this does do is it provides an insurance policy to reduce – not eliminate – but to reduce significantly the impact any significant surge would have.”
Whitty warns of ‘substantial transmission’ among teens
Whitty also explained that when looking at options, it was important to compare vaccinating a child with “a near-certainty that child will get Covid”.
“Our view is firmly that people who have an infection are likely to be off school for longer than people who have a vaccination on average. Therefore since virtually any child unvaccinated is likely to get an infection at some point between 12 and 15, that is the correct comparison, not against nothing, and that’s a really key point.”
He also said there was “substantial transmission” happening in the 12 to 15 age group.
“In fact the age group we’re talking about is the one in which the highest rate of transmission is currently occurring as far as we can tell.”
Data from the latest Office for National Statistics infection survey does show that school year groups 7 to 11 had the highest level of infection.
Van Tam added that “we are not looking at a theoretical risk of children 12 to 17 becoming infected – I think it is really quite inevitable that they will be so at some point”.
Advice was ‘categorically’ not political
The decision to press ahead with vaccines for teenagers came after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation ruled that the margin of benefit was “considered too small” to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination.
Asked today whether the decision to recommend vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds anyway was entirely medical, not influenced by politicians, Whitty said he could “categorically say” it was.
“There is no point in asking for professional advice…if you then take into account extraneous things”