Covid vaccines will be offered to all 16- and 17-year-olds after new recommendations by the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which said they will not need the consent of parents.
The change comes just two weeks after the body recommended against routine vaccination of children and said jabs for over-12s should be limited to those who were clinically vulnerable or live with someone at risk.
Ministers are to accept the recommendation and the NHS will be instructed to start giving first doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine to about 1.4 million children.
Vaccinations for healthy 12- to 15-year-olds will not be recommended in this phase but advice could change in the coming months while more evidence is studied.
Older teenagers are in one of the groups with the highest levels of Covid infections, so offering vaccinations to children aged 16 and 17 could potentially have a significant impact on dampening transmission.
Scientists on the JCVI have previously expressed some unease about vaccinating children, saying the very small risk of side-effects had to be weighed up against the extremely low risk that Covid infection poses to children.
The JCVI said it had considered reports of heart inflammation among some younger adults who had the jab, but officials said this was considered to be “extremely rare”, affecting about one in 100,000 people vaccinated, with effects that were “mild” with a short recovery period.
Others, including the body’s chair, Prof Andrew Pollard of the Oxford Vaccine Group, which helped develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, have expressed doubts about whether healthy children in the UK should be prioritised when many high-risk adults across the world are yet to receive a vaccine.
The decision has been made by the group’s Covid-19 subcommittee, chaired by Wei Shen Lim, an honorary professor of medicine at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS trust.
Many countries with high vaccination rates, including Ireland, France, Germany and the US, have all recommended vaccinating over-12s and the Pfizer vaccine has been approved for use for 12- to 17-year-olds by the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.
The decision has been welcomed by a number of scientists. Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist from the University of Leeds, said: “More than 9m doses have been given to adolescents in the US and more elsewhere, and whilst there’s obviously a need to understand certain adverse reactions including myocarditis [heart inflammation], the risk to children from Covid is clearly greater.
“This risk is even greater because of the high prevalence of the Delta variant in the UK at present, which may rise again in the autumn when schools return. In the absence of appropriate mitigations being established in English schools, I would suggest that vaccinating children is essential as a minimal duty of care. Over 5,000 under-18s were hospitalised in July 2021 alone, and the risk of long Covid remains unacceptable.”
Two members of a Sage subcommittee and several members of Independent Sage, said they had submitted evidence to the Lancet that they claim shows benefits clearly outweigh risks for all 12- to 17-year-olds.
But the 18 scientists who submitted a “risk-benefit” paper to the Lancet – which has not yet been reviewed – said the decision could be “too little, too late” and put younger teenagers needlessly at risk.