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Decision on coronavirus jab for more than a million 16 and 17-year-olds expected ‘imminently’

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The government is expected to announce the offering of a coronavirus vaccine to some 1.4 million teenagers “imminently”, a minister has confirmed.

Speaking to Kay Burley on Sky News, universities minister Michelle Donelan said Number 10 was awaiting advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which is assessing whether all 16 and 17-year-olds should receive the jab, and that an announcement would be made “shortly”.

The change in policy was first hinted at by Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Tuesday as she announced that the Scottish government and the UK, Welsh and Northern Irish governments are “in the same position” in expecting updated recommendations for 16 and 17-year-olds “in the next day or so”.

S5 and S6 students during an English Literature class at St Andrew's RC Secondary School in Glasgow as more pupils are returning to school in Scotland in the latest phase of lockdown easing. Picture date: Monday March 15, 2021.
Image: Some scientists have suggested offering under-18s the jab could prevent disruption to schooling

“We haven’t announced that, what we are doing is waiting for the JCVI announcement,” Ms Donelan told Sky News.

“At every stage throughout the pandemic we have adopted their advice on this, they are the experts of course when we are determining the vaccine rollout and we will await their imminently announcement shortly.”

She then clarified: “We are awaiting the feedback from the JCVI and then we will update accordingly, so we haven’t actually had a change of heart, there’s been no policy announcement, we’re awaiting that JCVI announcement which we’re expecting imminently, and then we’ll make an announcement.”

The vaccine is already available to children aged 12 and over if their health leaves them at higher risk, or if they live with an immunosuppressed person.

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Ms Donelan did not answer whether parental consent may be required for teenagers to accept the offer of a jab.

And pushed on whether 18 to 30-year-olds could be offered cash incentives to take up the vaccine, she added that “everything is on the table”.

The expected move comes as NHS data to 25 July shows more than 220,000 children in England have already had a COVID-19 vaccine.

The Pfizer/BioNTech coronavirus vaccine has been approved for use in children aged 12 to 17

But there has been significant debate over whether younger individuals should be offered the jab.

A person receives a dose of the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine at the Central Middlesex Hospital in London, Britain, August 1, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
Image: Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi announced in the Commons in July that those under 18 with certain health conditions or living with someone who is immunocompromised would be eligible for the jab

Some scientists say it would prevent further disruption to schooling in the next academic year, but other individuals have suggested that – as children are at a lower risk of serious illness from the virus – it would not be beneficial.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi announced in the Commons in July that those under the age of 18 with certain health conditions or living with someone who is immunocompromised would be eligible for the jab.

This, he said, would also include those approaching their 18th birthday.

Mr Zahawi noted at the time that the vaccine experts who advise the government, the JCVI, were keeping the option of offering the vaccine to children under constant review.

The JCVI previously said in July that “the minimal health benefits of offering universal COVID-19 vaccination to children do not outweigh the potential risks” as coronavirus rarely causes severe disease in children without underlying health conditions.

Symptoms are “typically mild” in children, the JCVI said, and as of March 2021, fewer than 30 children had died because of the virus.

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Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested on Tuesday that an announcement would be made in the coming days

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the React programme, said children should be vaccinated if they are offered the chance to be as a surge in infections to mid-July was being “driven” by younger people.

“Clearly what’s important now is that as many people who get offered the opportunity to have the vaccination should take it,” he told Sky News.

Speaking about the React study, which has been tracking infection in the population, he added: “The highest rates of infection was in the 13 to 24-year-old group, and the increase that we saw going up to mid-July was being driven from these younger people.

“As you say, there is a suggestion that maybe 16 and 17-year-olds will be offered the vaccine, in which case, I think it’s important that people should take that up if offered.”

Co-author of the React study Steven Riley added that said the latest results from the programme would “support” extending the vaccination programme to 16 and 17-year-olds.

And Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said allowing younger people to have coronavirus jabs would be welcomed news.

The Royal London Hospital. Pic: iStock
Image: Labour’s environment secretary Luke Pollard said vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds is a ‘good idea’ if it reduces the number of people being hospitalised with COVID-19

It is expected that ministers will approve advice from the JCVI which recommends healthy teenagers aged 16 and over be offered the chance to take up the vaccine as soon as Wednesday.

Shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard told Kay Burley vaccinating 16- and 17-year-olds is a “good idea” if it reduces the number of people being hospitalised with COVID-19.

“It’s being carried out right round the world at the moment in a safe way and if this increases the resilience of our nation and reduces the number of people facing hospitalisation or facing long COVID then I think it is a good idea,” he said on Sky News.