Children are ‘paying the price’ for the delayed approval of the Covid vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds, experts have said, with cases now soaring among these groups and causing disruption to education.
More than 100,000 children were absent from school with confirmed or suspected Covid infections in the week up to 16 September, while cases among those aged between five and 14 reached 811 per 100,000 for roughly the same period – a record high for the pandemic.
If the current growth rate in cases continues, it will only be a matter of weeks before the same number of children are out of school with Covid as during the summer term, when the “bubble” system forced some 1.1 million youngsters into isolation.
Irene Petersen, a professor of epidemiology at University College London, thinks that the current high caseload reported among children could have been avoided if the vaccine rollout for 12- to 15-year-olds had been started before the reopening of schools.
“I think if we had started vaccinating in August, as they did in Ireland – and throughout the summer in Europe – we could have prevented this huge surge in infection among young teenagers,” she said.
“I think we were too late in starting our vaccination programme for children. I am fully aware of the debate and why it was a late decision, but I think it’s now young teens who are paying the price, along with their parents.”
The 80 per cent week-on-week rise in child infections has also fuelled an increase in cases among people aged 30 to 49, which now stand at 286 per 100,000.
Vaccinations for younger teenagers only started on Wednesday last week, bringing to an end weeks of discussions among health officials over the policy.
Following a lengthy review, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation deferred to the UK’s four chief medical officers to make the decison. They recommended that more than 3 million 12- to 15-year-olds should be offered a single dose of the Pfizer jab.
Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said the “dithering and delay” among health advisers had proven “costly”, pointing out that the UK’s medicines regulator had concluded at the beginning of June that the Pfizer vaccine was safe and effective to use in this age group.
“Why has it taken so long to give approval? They delayed the decision on vaccines, and for me, the message surrounding the delay, with people saying the benefits are only marginal, has basically given ammunition to those who oppose vaccinating children.”
He said the debate around vaccine-induced heart inflammation, reported in rare instances among predominantly younger male recipients of the Pfizer jab, had been damaging.
“The greater worry I’ve got is my child developing long Covid or experiencing illness that forces them out of school,” said Dr Griffin.
“Proportionally, yes, they’re less likely to have a serious, acute illness, but we know that kids can get unwell from this virus, we know that there’s been more than 1,000 under-18s admitted to hospital in the last few months.
“We know that, depending on which estimates you look at, anywhere between 2 and 14 per cent of kids are developing long-Covid symptoms for three months or more. For a young life, that’s atrocious. But this risk is being minimised.”
Of the 100,000 children recently absent from school with Covid, between 2,000 and 14,000 are expected to develop longer-lasting symptoms, according to the latest research. These figures could rise to 20,000 and 140,000 if 1 million children are infected in the weeks to come, as experts fear may happen.
As such, Prof Petersen said it was vital that the rollout of vaccines among 12- to 15-year-olds was accelerated immediately.
“Hopefully they can do it as quickly as possible,” she said. “It will give better protection and protect those who haven’t been infected, too.”
In the meantime, schools should consider re-implementing some of the Covid measures that were scrapped by the government prior to the reopening of classrooms, said Orla Hegarty, an assistant professor of architecture, planning and environmental policy at University College Dublin.
Denbighshire, in Wales, is the latest council to ask schools to strengthen mask-wearing and distancing, while some schools in England have been forced to temporarily close their doors due to the high number of pupils infected with Covid.
“We can take mitigations that are really effective in schools, like masking and air filtration in classrooms, which can reduce the risk of transmission,” said Prof Hegarty.
“In European primary and secondary schools, they have environmental interventions to do with filtration and ventilation policies, reducing overcrowding by employing more teachers, or using larger spaces.
“They still have track and trace policies, where the entire class is isolated if a child is positive. If you manage your cases and go hard early, it doesn’t develop into something bigger and more disruptive for winter.”
Cumbria’s local authority is another body to have taken matters into its own hands in response to rising infections among children, advising parents that siblings of confirmed Covid cases will be allowed to stay off school – even though government guidelines say that under-18s do not need to self-isolate if they are a close contact without symptoms.
Jon Richards, assistant general secretary for Unison, said that the government had ignored warnings “not to do away with Covid safety measures in schools”.
“Large-scale disruption this term was entirely predictable,” he added. “Until the pupil vaccination programme can take effect, more must be done to help schools ensure a better flow of fresh air throughout their buildings.
“Opening windows might be an option now, but less so in the depths of winter. The sooner schools are fitted with air filters, the better.”