Downing Street has pushed back against Matt Hancock’s suggestion that the government could make vaccinations mandatory for state school pupils, saying it was not currently a plan.
In an apparent rebuke of the health secretary, Boris Johnson’s spokesman said the priority was encouraging the uptake of childhood vaccinations, levels of which are falling.
Speaking at a Conservative conference fringe event on Sunday, Hancock said the government was “looking very seriously” at making vaccinations compulsory for state school pupils and had taken advice on how such a law could work.
But asked if No 10 supported the idea of not allowing children into state schools without vaccinations, Johnson’s spokesman said: “We’re not at the stage of refusing admission. Our priority is on increasing vaccination numbers, and I’ve set out some of the things that we’re doing.”
The alternative plans include making it easier for parents to book GP appointments for vaccinations, and keeping better records on children who have not been vaccinated.
The spokesman said: “We take children’s health very seriously and the reality is vaccine uptake is very high at over 90%. But the health secretary has rightly said that the current fall in vaccination rates is unacceptable.
“We’re working hard to make it easier for parents to get their children vaccinated, and that’s why we’re looking at how we can ensure that every child is properly protected.”
Hancock said he was “very worried” about falling vaccination rates, which are blamed in part on false anti-vaccination theories often spread via social media.
“I’ve said before that we should be open-minded, and frankly, what I’d say is that when the state provides services to people then it’s a two-way street – you’ve got to take your responsibilities too,” Hancock told the Q&A session hosted by the Huffington Post.
“So I think there’s a very strong argument for having compulsory vaccinations for children when they go to school, because otherwise they’re putting other children at risk.”
Several US states including California have introduced such laws for state-educated pupils but also faced lengthy legal challenges.
Asked about such potential opposition in the UK, Hancock said: “Actually, I’ve received advice inside government this week on how we might go about it, and I’m looking very seriously at it.”
The UK has lost its recognition as a measles-free country from the World Health Organization after a gradual fall in rates of MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) immunisation.
Figures released last week showed there had been a marked decline in vaccinations administered at the ages of 12 months, 24 months and five years for 13 diseases including whooping cough, diphtheria and meningitis.
Hancock said this was a serious problem. “It’s unbelievable, I think, that Britain has lost its measles-free status, and it should be a real wake-up call. I think that the social media companies have got a lot to answer for, because they allow the spread of anti-vaccine messages.
“I will do whatever I can – the science is absolutely clear and settled on the importance of vaccination. And the worst thing is that if you don’t vaccinate your child, and you can, then the person you’re putting at risk is not only your child but it’s also the child who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons.”