Healthy teenagers aged 16 and 17 will be offered the Pfizer vaccine within weeks and will be able to overrule their parents to get vaccinated, after a rethink by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI).
Speaking at a Downing Street press briefing, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, said there was “no time to waste” in rolling out the jabs to teenagers, and said he would be happy to have his own children vaccinated.
“I want us to proceed as fast as practically possible,” he said. “The NHS has been kept informed of what has been deliberated by JCVI and it has been preparing multiple permutations and options for many weeks now, and I would expect this programme to begin in a very short number of weeks.”
Less than three weeks ago, the committee said that the benefits did not outweigh the risks for youngsters, ruling out the “routine use of universal vaccination of children”.
But on Wednesday, the JCVI said it had gathered more data about the safety of the vaccines and had also weighed up the impact of the pandemic on education and mental health.
Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chairman for JCVI, said that although the disease was typically mild or asymptomatic in young people, it could be very unpleasant for some, particularly for 16 and 17-year-olds. “The benefits are greater for older children than younger children,” he said.
Prof Lim added that the risk/benefit ratio had not changed since their original recommendations, but he said they now had more confidence that the jab was safe for teenagers. He said the JCVI planned to publish the evidence for the decision shortly.
“It’s a certainty of information,” he said. “Not just on the balance of harms and benefits.
“It is partly dependent on the number of people who are vaccinated,” he added. “As the weeks go by, many more people are vaccinated.
“It’s not new data coming from elsewhere, it’s a greater certainty as more data increases.”
The JCVI team also said it had seen modelling that showed there may be positive benefits to the wider population from teenagers being vaccinated, particularly if a new winter wave emerges.
The third wave has largely been driven by youngsters, and there are concerns that Britain will never achieve herd immunity unless a significant proportion of children are vaccinated.
Vaccinating children, as well as protecting them, will also lower their ability to transmit the disease if they do become infected.
Although there have been fears that the jab can cause the rare heart condition myocarditis in young people, experts said the chance was just one in 100,000. The JVCI team said children should seek medical help if they experienced a stabbing pain in the chest, neck or shoulders, shortness of breath, palpitations, or nausea and similar symptoms after the jab.
Prof Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London, and a government adviser, said: “Vaccination of teenagers may have a major effect on the return of Covid next winter, assuming that the rates will drop this summer.
“Full vaccination takes time, so the sooner we start the sooner this age group will be protected.”
Under the new guidance, 16 and 17-year-olds will be offered a single dose of the Pfizer jab. Vaccination experts are yet to set out the timeline for when youngsters should get their second dose, and will make further recommendations in the coming weeks.
The JCVI said it was confident teenagers would be afforded around 80 per cent protection against hospitalisations after a first dose.
Currently children aged 12 and over can be vaccinated if they have underlying health conditions, or live with a vulnerable adult.
The JCVI said it was not ruling out extending the vaccination programme to more children, and hinted that it may soon broaden the list of health conditions which would allow those under 16 and over 12 to be jabbed.