Covid Scotand: Nicola Sturgeon not ruling out extending jab to teens against JCVI advice

Nicola Sturgeon has not ruled out going against the advice of the UK’s leading vaccination experts by potentially extending the Covid-19 jab roll-out to all teenagers.

The First Minister’s comments came after one of her closest advisers, Professor Devi Sridhar, said it would be “reckless” to allow Covid-19 to spread in an “uncontrolled epidemic” among teenagers.

The SNP leader repeatedly said no government had gone against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) in the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament and that it was important for the government to listen to the group, but added she would not “predict into the future”.

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The JCVI's current advice around the jab and teenagers is for it to only be given to those with an underlying health condition.

Most Scottish pupils will begin to return to school in three weeks from August 16, just a week after all major Covid-19 restrictions are due to be relaxed by the Scottish Government.

Some experts such as Professor Mark Jit, who sits on the UK Government’s Spi-M committee of disease modellers, have suggested the school holidays has resulted in an overall drop in cases due to children no longer transmitting the disease among each other.

It also comes as case numbers continue to drop in Scotland.

On Tuesday, Ms Sturgeon announced a total of 1,044 people had tested positive for the virus.

The First Minister said cases had more than halved in the past two weeks while the weekly figure of patients in hospital with the virus has fallen to 421 from 577 the previous week.

Responding to questions at a Covid-19 briefing on Tuesday, the SNP leader refused to rule out going against JCVI guidance around vaccinating young people.

The comments came after Prof Sridhar, writing for The Guardian, criticised the position in the UK of letting “teenagers get on with it and see what happens once they’re infected”.

Criticising the approach in England, where all major legal Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted, the chair of global public health and Edinburgh University said such a move would result in an “uncontrolled epidemic” among younger age groups.

Last week it was confirmed those with an underlying condition aged 12 to 17 would be eligible for a jab, but Ms Sturgeon urged the JCVI not to rule out vaccinating all younger teenagers.

She is also set to remove all but a handful of Covid-19 restrictions on August 9, leaving Scottish teenagers in almost an identical situation to English teens as they return to school.

Prof Sridhar highlighted concerns being raised in the USA around long Covid and the risks of exposing children to a new virus, highlighting arguments that it was a “major risk that should be avoided”.

She said: “I struggle to understand how a disease considered risky to adolescents in the US can be considered innocuous in Britain.

"The alternative of letting the virus spread among young people seems reckless. England is alone in doing this.

"It is acting as a laboratory for other countries, which are watching to see what happens before they decide on their own policies towards children.

"The UK Government’s comparatively relaxed attitude may also create a petri dish for Covid variants. The consequence could be a new variant that makes our current vaccines less effective, or has more severe outcomes for unvaccinated children.”

Just one teenager aged between 14 and 19 and three aged 14 or under have died with Covid-19, according to official statistics.

However, it is not known how many may be suffering from long Covid, or what the long-term impact of Covid-19 is on those infected.

Asked if she would rule out going against the JCVI advice, Ms Sturgeon said she would not “predict into the future” and did not explicitly commit fully to following the group’s advice.

“I think it is important that we listen to the JCVI,” she said.

"We’ve never gone against JCVI, [but] I’m not going to predict into the future and what might or might not happen in the future.

"The JCVI is looking at this on an ongoing basis. I think it understands how anxious I am sure all governments are to make sure we get this right, and if we are going to end up in a position of vaccinating young people, we end up there sooner rather than later."

Earlier, she had been asked why the Scottish Government had not acted and ensured young people were vaccinated prior to schools returning.

Commenting, Ms Sturgeon said: "In the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament so far, and people can decide whether this is right or wrong, but in the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament, a government has never departed from the recommendations of the JCVI on questions of vaccination and immunisation.

"I’m saying that to underline how important the JCVI advice is on these questions.”

The First Minister said if the JCVI position was to change, it must do so as soon as possible due to the “particular urgency” around pupils returning to school earlier in Scotland than elsewhere in the UK.

Ms Sturgeon was clear, however, that if the vaccine was less dangerous than Covid-19, then doses should be extended to all teenagers.

She said: "If young people are unvaccinated and they get the virus, the question I am asking and asking through expert advisers and the JCVI, is there’s a pretty binary question here.

"Is getting the virus for a young person more or less dangerous than getting the vaccine?

"If the virus is more dangerous than the vaccine, my view would be the answer should be vaccinate. If the answer is getting the vaccine is more dangerous, than the virus the answer would be don’t vaccinate.

"That’s why I am keen we have got very, very solid advice from the JCVI around it, and I know the chief medical officers across the UK have communicated with the JCVI on these points.

"If it is the case that vaccination can help mitigate against a greater risk, and if it is that the virus is a greater risk for young people that we get to that position as quickly as possible.”

Scotland also hit the milestone on Tuesday of more than four million people having received a first dose of the vaccine, with more than 3.1 million having received their second dose.

Giving a further update on the daily coronavirus figures, the First Minister said there were 472 people in hospital on Monday with recently confirmed Covid-19, down three on the previous day, with 63 patients in intensive care, down two.

She said a decision on whether further restrictions could be eased on August 9 as planned would be announced in a virtual session of the Scottish Parliament next Tuesday.

Leading up to this, Ms Sturgeon said the government would weigh up the different factors that would inform its decision on how many restrictions can be lifted.

Ms Sturgeon added: “I am confident we will make progress and while are already living with far fewer restrictions than has been the case in previous stages of the pandemic, all of us want to see the remaining restrictions eased as soon as possible.

“That’s important to all of us as individuals, it’s very important to businesses and the economy, but we will need to do that with appropriate caution and an appropriate degree of care.”

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