The Daily Telegraph
Move out of desperation to stem schools chaos
Expert advice is overruled as ministers take a gamble that jabbing children will end classroom turmoil
THE chances of a child dying from Covid is two in a million. It is more likely they will die getting hit by lightning. And yet, yesterday the Government unveiled plans for the mass vaccination of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds.
How did it come to this? The answer may lie in the chaos in schools over the past 18 months created by one disastrous policy after another which has resulted in two years of cancelled exams and huge disruption to children’s education. The answer, or so ministers appear to believe, is to vaccinate pupils rather than run the risk of yet another term of turmoil.
The first problem for the Government was that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) did not recommend the rollout. Earlier this month, it delivered its long-awaited verdict, saying the “margin of benefit” of jabbing 12 to 15-year-olds was “considered too small” and citing the low risk to healthy children from the virus.
Undeterred, Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, instructed Prof Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, to assess whether there is a wider benefit to society. Mr Javid said that he wanted Prof Whitty and the chief medical officers from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to “consider the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds from a broader perspective”. He said he would “then consider the advice from the chief medical officers, building on the advice from the JCVI, before making a decision shortly”.
That decision is now inevitable given yesterday’s announcement from Prof Whitty that vaccinating children will “reduce education disruption” and, as such, one dose should be offered to those aged 12 to 15.
Keeping schools open and free from disruption has become one of the cornerstones of the Government’s “learning to live with Covid” agenda. From the start of the pandemic, ministers have come under fire over their policies towards schools. They have been accused of treating children like second-class citizens.
First, they were accused of failing to act quickly enough to close schools last March. Then, after telling children to stay at home last spring, they failed to get them back to the classroom properly until September.
The Government came under mounting criticism over its inability to overcome the teaching unions and insist that all schools welcome pupils back during the summer term, only to close them down once more during the second national lockdown earlier this year.
The fact that children remained at home last summer while shops, cinemas, theme parks and zoos were open last June left ministers open to criticism. “It is not a good look if we are rushing to open pubs and beer gardens while the vast majority of schools are not open,” one of the Government’s scientific advisers said.
“The Government has shown time and time again that children are an afterthought,” said Molly Kingsley, cofounder of the parent campaign group Usforthem.
The prolonged school closures led to the cancellation of A-levels and GCSES two years in a row, which has led to spiralling grade inflation.
So, despite the JCVI’S pronouncement that the margin of benefit is “too small” to support the universal rollout of the Covid vaccine to children, the Government is pressing ahead with it not on health grounds alone, but on the basis that it will help to keep children in the classroom.
This is despite dozens of Conservative MPS warning that overruling expert advice threatened to “dissolve the bond of trust” between the public and the Government. Last week 26 backbenchers wrote to Mr Javid saying that the Government’s willingness to “ignore” the JCVI was a cause for “serious concern”.
Prof Whitty acknowledged that jabbing healthy youngsters will help to reduce the chaos schools have faced, and he also warned that it is not a “silver bullet”.
“We are confident about reducing disruption, we are also confident that this will not eliminate disruption,” he told a press conference yesterday.
“It reduces the chance that a child will get Covid probably about 50-55 per cent and it will reduce the chances that a child who then gets Covid will pass it on. We expect it will reduce the number of outbreaks in schools as well as a direct effect on children.
“But we definitely do not think … that this alone is going to be the thing that deals with education issues and it’s really important that policies are kept in place that minimise, or policies are not put in place that increase the risk that further disruption will occur.”
Official guidance states that if just five pupils or staff members test positive for Covid within 10 days and are likely to have mixed closely, schools can step up their measures.
Schools across the country have already started introducing restrictions, days into the new academic year.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that jabbing school-aged children was a “vital step” towards keeping them in the classroom.
Perhaps the biggest problem for the Government will be convincing parents – and by extension children – about the benefits of the vaccine versus the risk.
A survey by the charity Parentkind released findings yesterday that show almost half (46 per cent) of parents with children aged between 12 and 15 said they would not approve of their child being given a Covid jab or are undecided. Uncertainty about giving the jabs to children did not seem to be linked to parental vaccine hesitancy, with 77 per cent of the survey’s respondents saying they had received a vaccine.
“The Government has got itself in an incredible mess,” Ms Kingsley said. “Vaccinating children is not the answer.”