The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has announced that it is widening the limited vaccine roll-out to more children who have underlying health conditions, but it is not recommending mass vaccination of those aged between 12 and 15.
The surprising announcement on Friday came as the latest Covid figures showed the number of Scots infected with Covid-19 doubled in a week and as MSPs are set to debate the introduction of vaccine passports to curb case rises.
The Office for National Statistics estimates around one in 75 people in Scotland caught the virus in the week up to August 28 – compared to one in 140 in the preceding seven days. The figure represents around 72,000 people in Scotland, and is at the highest level since surveillance studies began for Scotland in October last year.
Both Nicola Sturgeon and national clinical director Jason Leitch had been preparing for the JCVI to give the green light for younger children to be vaccinated. Currently only those aged above 16, or those age 12 and above with underlying health issues, can receive a jag.
Responding to the announcement on Twitter, the First Minister said in light of the advice, she, Boris Johnson and the leaders of the Welsh Parliament and Northern Ireland assembly, had asked their chief medical officers (CMOs) to “consider wider issues, such as educational impact, in relation to vaccination of all 12 to 15-year-olds and offer further advice as quickly as possible”.
While the JCVI said the vaccination programme should be extended from the most at-risk children, to include children with chronic major heart, lung, kidney, liver and neurological conditions, which will see 200,000 more children invited for vaccines, it also concluded that with just two in every million healthy children needing intensive care treatment for Covid, the benefits of vaccination were “insufficient to support a universal offer”.
However, the committee also advised the health benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms, and as it was not in its remit to consider wider issues such as the effect on the education sector, it said ministers could seek advice elsewhere.
As a result, the views of the four nations' chief medical officers will now be taken into account, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) said, and there are hopes of a UK-wide policy being formed in the next week.
The independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), has approved both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for people aged 12 and over after they met strict standards of safety and effectiveness.
The CMOs are now expected to convene experts and leaders in clinical and public health to consider the issue of vaccination before presenting their advice to ministers on whether a universal programme should be taken forward.
The UK’s health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: “Our Covid-19 vaccines have brought a wide range of benefits to the country, from saving lives and preventing hospitalisations, to helping stop infections and allowing children to return to school.
“I am grateful for the expert advice that I have received from the independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation.
“People aged 12 to 15 who are clinically vulnerable to the virus have already been offered a Covid-19 vaccine, and today we’ll be expanding the offer to those with conditions such as sickle cell disease or type one diabetes to protect even more vulnerable children.
“Along with health ministers across the four nations, I have today written to the chief medical officers to ask that they consider the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds from a broader perspective, as suggested by the JCVI. We will then consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly.”
Scottish health minister Humza Yousaf added: “While the JCVI has agreed that the benefits marginally outweigh the risks, they are not yet prepared to recommend universal vaccination of 12-15-year-olds.
"However, they have suggested that health ministers may wish to ask their respective CMOs to explore the issue further, taking into consideration broader educational and societal impacts.
"Therefore, I have agreed with the other three UK health ministers to write a letter asking the four chief medical officers to consider this latest guidance and explore whether there is additional evidence to suggest it would be beneficial to offer vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds. We have asked for this further work to be conducted as soon as possible.
“A further update will be issued once these discussions have taken place. In the meantime, we will offer the vaccine to those children and young people currently recommended.
“The recent increase in cases of Covid-19 means it remains crucial that everyone who is offered a vaccination takes up the offer.”
Vaccinations for younger children have already been rolled out in some European countries, including France, Italy, Denmark, Spain and Poland.
The European Medicines Agency (EMA) approved the use of the Pfizer vaccine for children aged 12 to 15 in May based on a study involving 2,259 children that showed their immune response was comparable to those in the age 16 to 25 cohort.
None of the children who received the vaccine developed Covid, compared to 16 who did after receiving a placebo.
The EMA also approved the Moderna vaccine for use in June after a study of 3,732 children showed none who received the vaccine contracted Covid compared to four in the placebo group.
The UK vaccination programme has so far provided protection to over 48 million people over the age of 16 across the UK, including over 48 million first doses and over 43 million second doses.
Responding to the JCVI statement, a spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives said: “Both of Scotland’s governments have followed JCVI advice throughout the pandemic and their expert decisions should continue to be the key consideration on this issue.”
It was also revealed on Friday that a security flaw allowing people to edit Covid vaccination status certificates had still not been fixed – three months after the problem was first identified.
People in Scotland have been able to alter vaccination status details using popular computer software programmes after downloading the forms from the NHS Scotland Portal. The update comes as people were able to download a QR code showing their Covid vaccination status for the first time on Friday.
Meanwhile the Scottish Liberal Democrats said they would oppose the Scottish Government’s plans to introduce vaccine passports at next week’s debate, raising concerns about the impact on people who have received vaccinations outside Scotland, including international students.
Former leader Willie Rennie also urged the Scottish Greens to oppose the plans following Patrick Harvie’s repeated refusal to say how he would vote, despite being a strong critic of the measure only a few weeks ago.
Mr Rennie said: “I agreed with Patrick Harvie when he stood firmly against this measure in recent weeks. But I am alarmed that he and his colleagues may vote for it next week.
“If Patrick Harvie doesn’t stand up to the SNP on this important issue, he will be pushed around for the rest of the Parliament. The coalition government is crossing a line. To move from the state encouraging people to get vaccinated to compelling them to do so is a major step.”
It is understood the while the Greens are opposed to the idea in principle, they are looking for exemptions to the scheme and assurances it won’t be extended beyond nightclubs and large gatherings, to include essential services.
Former SNP deputy leader Jim Sillars has also urged MSPs to oppose the plans. Writing to his own MSP, Scottish Labour’s Daniel Johnson, he said: “Demand for these passports would appear to be directed mainly at the young, but once you include football grounds it potentially covers every citizen. It introduces a new body of law.”
Mr Sillars added: “It is time to draw a line on the destruction of our civil liberties; and it is time that government control by fearmongering ceased, and we all see dealing with Covid as only one part of the challenges in public health and how the NHS serves the community in response to all its medical problems.”