All 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK are to be offered a Covid-19 vaccine, the government has confirmed, with the rollout of doses set to begin in the coming weeks.
Under guidance provided by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), some 1.4 million teenagers are now eligible to receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine – the only jab that has been approved for use in children in the UK.
The JCVI has yet to determine the interval between the administration of a first and second jab for 16 and 17-year-olds, with a decision set to be made in due course as more data is collected and reviewed by the body.
Teenagers in the new age groups can get the vaccine without parental consent, the government said.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said he expected the rollout to “start in a very short number of weeks indeed”.
“There is no time to waste in getting on with this,” he said. With children due to start returning to sixth forms and colleges soon, the government is keen “to proceed as fast as is practically possible,” Prof Van-Tam added.
Just two weeks ago the JCVI recommended that clinically vulnerable children who face an increased risk from Covid-19 should vaccinated, but advised against a universal rollout for all under-18s.
However, the decision to now offer the Pfizer vaccine to 16 and 17-year-olds has come following a review of various different factors, including the safety profile of the jab, the risk of severe disease and occurrence of long-lasting symptoms in teenagers, potential disruptions to non-Covid vaccination programmes, and the mental health and educational impacts of the virus.
Experts in the JCVI had been particularly keen to gather more data on use of the Pfizer vaccine in children amid reports of heart inflammation in younger male recipients of the jab.
Data from the US, which has been vaccinating children for months, suggests that in males aged 12 to 17 years, 9.8 cases of the condition were reported per million first doses given. This rises to 67 per million after the second dose. Most recovered quickly.
Overall, heart inflammation affects around one in 100,000 people who receive the Pfizer vaccine, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
The MHRA said it will “continue to scrutinise” vaccine data as the first wave of teenagers come forward to get their Covid-19 jabs.
Earlier on Wednesday, universities minister Michelle Donelan denied any political pressure had been put on the JCVI to extend the roll-out to 16 and 17-year-olds. “That’s not how they operate,” she said.
Alex Richter, a professor of clinical immunology at the University of Birmingham, said that vaccinating 16 to 17-year-olds is the “logical next step”.
“We know the vaccines are highly efficacious and this is another piece in the jigsaw for the UK returning to some kind of normality,” she added.
“Young adults are at low risk, but not at no risk, of severe disease and there are increasing reports of long Covid in this age group. We must also consider the huge impact on the education of this age group and also their social development. If we have a vaccine that can prevent infection altogether then this seems a sensible approach.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said extending the programme would reduce disruption to schooling.
“Anything that gives the reassurance to young people that they are being treated in the way that the adult population is and that their education won’t be disrupted to the extent it has been – that has to be welcomed,” he told the Today programme.
Health secretary Sajid Javid has suggested Covid jabs could be given through the "existing school vaccination programme”, adding that existing hospital hubs and GP clinics will also be used.
It’s understood that the UK has ample supplies to begin administering doses in 16 and 17-year-olds, with appointments set to be available within a fortnight.
Previous advice on vaccinating clinically vulnerable children as young as 12 will continue to stand.
Last month the JCVI recommended that children aged 12 to 15 with severe neurological conditions, Down’s syndrome, immunosuppression or multiple or severe learning disabilities should receive two doses of the Pfizer vaccine.
This guidance extends to 17-year-olds who are within three months of their 18th birthday, and children as young as 12 who live with an immunosuppressed individual.
This policy will be kept under review and could be changed if the data supports it.