Nicola Sturgeon hints she could offer vaccines to secondary school children

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A minor receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a vaccination center in Asuncion, on July 23, 2021. Paraguay started to inoculate children and teenagers from 12 to 17 years-old with underlying diseases. - AFP
A minor receives a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at a vaccination center in Asuncion, on July 23, 2021. Paraguay started to inoculate children and teenagers from 12 to 17 years-old with underlying diseases. - AFP

Nicola Sturgeon has hinted that she could break ranks with the UK and roll out vaccinations to all secondary school children amid concern from experts that the new term could be a "petri dish" for Covid variants.

While a number of European countries, as well as the United States, have approved the rollout of the vaccine for all children over 12, the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has so far only recommended it for 12 to 17-year-olds with underlying health conditions or those living with an immunosuppressed person.

While the JCVI is keeping advice under review, Scotland’s chief medical officer wason Tuesday writing to the body about the “particular urgency” over guidance north of the border given that pupils are set to return to school in three weeks’ time.

Despite admitting that it would be “very controversial” for her government to go against the expert UK advice, the First Minister said she would not “predict into the future what might or might not happen” when asked directly if she would rule out such a move.

She noted that Ireland had approved vaccinations for 12 to 15-year-olds and said she was "anxious" to vaccinate children "sooner rather than later" if it was shown the benefits outweighed risks.

"In the lifetime of the Scottish Parliament, a government has never departed from the recommendations of the JCVI on questions of vaccination and immunisation,” she told a coronavirus press briefing.

"If at any point I or the Scottish Government was to do that, that would be a significant step, and I'm sure we will come under a lot of scrutiny for the basis on which we were doing that. That would have been, if I can put it mildly, a very controversial thing for us to have done.”

Question of if vaccine risk outweighs risk of getting virus

Ms Sturgeon said the question being considered was whether getting the virus is more or less dangerous for a young person than getting the vaccine.

“If the virus is more dangerous than the vaccine, my view would be that the answer should be vaccinate,” she said.

"If getting the vaccine is more dangerous than the virus, the answer would be don't vaccinate. That's what I am keen to make sure we have very, very solid advice from the JCVI around.”

She added: "The JCVI is looking at this on an ongoing basis, and I think it understands how anxious I'm sure all governments across the UK 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 so young people get the protection of vaccination as quickly as possible."

Asked about concerns raised by public health expert Devi Sridhar that unprotected children could become a “petri dish” for new vaccine-resistant variants, Ms Sturgeon said she can “understand exactly what Devi is saying” and that she has “spoken directly” with her about the issue.

Prof Sridhar, one of Ms Sturgeon’s top advisers on Covid-19 and chair of global health at Edinburgh University, has branded the decision not to vaccinate all youngsters aged between 12 and 17 as “reckless”.

Prof Sridhar has also tweeted that she finds it “baffling” that “contrary to almost all other countries” the JCVI has advised against mass vaccination of all 12 to 18-year olds.

“Trying to explain this decision to colleagues in other countries (defending a position you disagree with always a good thinking exercise) yet struggling,” she wrote.

However, the First Minister stressed that “right now” the “basis in this country” for vaccination advice is the JCVI.

"I cannot just decide myself as a politician who gets vaccinated and who doesn't,” she added.

The JCVI said earlier this month that based on current evidence, the "minimal" health benefits of offering universal Covid-19 vaccination to children did not outweigh the potential risks.

Ms Sturgeon also confirmed that she will set out a plan for self-isolation rules for school pupils next week, when she will also make a statement to Holyrood regarding plans for Scotland’s ‘Freedom Day’ of August 9. She said she was confident restrictions would be lifted.

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