School leaders are calling for pupils to be vaccinated as a matter of priority after UK regulators approved a jab for 12- to 15-year-olds and data showed outbreaks of the Delta variant in schools throughout England.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) on Friday gave its approval for the use of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine in children aged 12 to 15, paving the way for its use among all but the youngest secondary school pupils.
But a decision on whether it will be rolled out to children, and when, will fall to the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) and ultimately ministers.
Teaching union and school leaders said that starting a vaccination programme for teenagers soon could mean most secondary pupils would receive two doses by the time schools begin the new term in September, minimising the risk of further disruption to their education.
On Friday, new government-commissioned research showed that a decade’s worth of progress in reducing the attainment gap for disadvantaged children could have been eradicated during the pandemic.
But some scientists warned it could be unethical to prioritise jabs for children, who are at extremely low risk of serious illness from Covid, given the small risk of side-effects and as vaccine rates remain low in many other countries.
It comes after the Delta variant was shown to be spreading in schools in small but growing numbers, with 140 incidents reported so far.
After the approval of the Pfizer vaccine for children, Hamid Patel, chief executive of the Star Academies trust based in Blackburn, said: “This is very welcome news. We now need to ensure that all teenagers have received at least the first jab before the summer holidays.
“Schools are best placed to accommodate vaccinations and the infrastructure is already in place for delivering inoculations. We will get much higher take-up if we ask youngsters to receive the jab in term time rather than when they are enjoying their holidays. This will also enable all of us to have a safer, freer and more normal summer.”
Patel, whose multi-academy trust includes more than 30 schools across England, including in Bolton, Manchester and Blackpool, added: “With infection rates surging among teenagers in some areas of the country, it is vital to prioritise schools in these hotspots. This will help manage and eradicate current infection outbreaks.”
Union leaders called on the JCVI – which advises the government on setting vaccine group priorities – to seriously consider offering doses to younger teenagers.
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT teaching union, said: “Offering young people access to vaccination would not only be of benefit to their safety and help to minimise further disruption to their education, it would also help protect the wider adult population who are at greater risk from Covid.
“With case numbers in schools rising, the JCVI must now study the evidence and come forward with a swift decision on expanding the vaccination programme to younger people.”
Dr June Raine, the MHRA’s chief executive, said her agency had concluded that the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is safe and effective for 12 to 15-year-olds, with the benefits outweighing any risks.
Use of the Pfizer version for young teenagers has already been approved by US authorities. Pfizer has reported 100% efficacy in the 12 to 15 age group, meaning none of the children in the trials developed Covid symptoms.
But some experts urged caution. Adam Finn, professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol, said the key questions was whether vaccinating children would protect them from infection and prevent disruption to their education and development.
“Reports of cases of Delta variant infection in schools this week are clearly of concern in this context,” Finn said, adding that children at risk of serious illness were in the process of being identified so they can be offered vaccines as soon as possible.
But Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics at the University of Oxford, said there was an urgent need to vaccinate vulnerable people in countries with the greatest need.
“It is unethical to give vaccines to people at very low risk in our own country when there are others overseas at much higher risk who are dying. For the time being, we should not be extending our Covid vaccination programs to include children,” he said.
In the US, Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, urged parents to vaccinate their children after the publication of new research.
“I am deeply concerned by the numbers of hospitalised adolescents and saddened to see the numbers of adolescents who required treatment in intensive care units or mechanical ventilation,” Walensky said.
The study found that nearly a third of teenagers hospitalised with Covid earlier this year required intensive care, while 5% required mechanical ventilation.
Data published by Public Health England (PHE) revealed for the first time that 140 outbreaks of the Delta or Indian variant had been recorded in schools in England, with cases overall rising last month following the relaxation of mask-wearing in schools.
But campaigners said that PHE and the government needed to publish more details about the spread of Covid within schools, including numbers of infections in each location rather than only outbreaks.
A pressure group named The Citizens said it had served legal notice on PHE and would begin proceedings for a judicial review unless PHE published the more detailed figures.