Every child in the UK could be offered a Covid jab by the end of the year, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi suggested today.
No10 is set to unveil plans to immunise Britons aged 12 to 16 who have underlying health conditions or live with a vulnerable family member.
The plans will also see 17-year-olds who are months away from their 18th birthdays offered a vaccine.
But ministers will stop short of opening the rollout up to all healthy youngsters until more safety data is collected in places like the US, where it is already happening.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation — which advises No10 on the inoculation drive — will also review data from ongoing trials of Pfizer’s jab in children as young as two.
Mr Zahawi said the Government had niggling concerns about the ‘very rare’ cases of heart inflammation in some young people given the Pfizer and Moderna jabs.
It comes as all Covid restrictions are lifted in England today, though Boris Johnson has urged caution as the outbreak across the country is spurred on by the more contagious Indian ‘Delta’ variant.
He will be spending Freedom Day in isolation — along with Chancellor Rishi Sunak — because they were both identified as close contacts of Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for the virus at the weekend.
Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi said the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) are still reviewing whether all children should be given the vaccine, while the Daily Telegraph said the committee is ‘leaving the door open’ for the move
Experts in the UK are waiting for the results from clinical trials and from countries like the US who are already vaccinating children, before deciding whether to follow suit
What is the evidence on vaccinating children?
Covid is very rarely severe or fatal in children.
Just one in 500,000 under-18s are at risk of dying from the virus, researchers at leading UK universities found this month.
That means any vaccine given to youngsters has to be very safe because the risk-harm benefit from them catching the virus is so low.
The fact that older people have a higher chance of being hospitalised or dying from the virus outweighs the side effects the vaccine could have on them.
But as children are less affected from the virus, some side effects could be riskier to them than the virus itself.
Since the vaccine rollout has been expanded to children in countries including the US and Israel, there have been reports of an extremely rare reported cases of myocarditis and pericarditis.
Myocarditis is inflammation of the heart muscle, while pericarditis is when the protective layer around the heart gets inflamed.
There are no specific causes of the conditions but they are usually triggered by a virus.
The UK is expected to wait for more data from clinical trials and other countries immunising children before making a decision to offer all youngster the jab.
The US, Israel and France are already giving the vaccine to over-12s.
In addition to safety concerns, children’s bodies and immune systems behave differently, meaning they might have different treatment needs.
Youngsters may need different doses or needle sizes depending on their height, weight and age – which is why most children are only vaccinated after safety has been well-documented in the adult population.
Vaccinating children against Covid remains a contentious topic because most youngsters are at such low risk from the virus itself and the jabs carry a tiny risk of serious side effects.
Immunising youngsters would purely be to protect the adult population and keep schools open.
Almost 750,000 children had to self-isolate last week because they came into contact with a possible Covid case.
The JCVI is expected to advise the Government to only jab children between 12 and 16 who have underlying conditions themselves or live with someone who does, as well as 17-year-olds within three months of their next birthday.
The committee is waiting for evidence from children receiving both doses in the US and in trials before recommending all healthy children be injected.
But they will ‘leave the door open’ for a wider rollout among children after they review safety data from trials later this year, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Any children who get the jab are expected to get the Pfizer jab, which the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency previously approved for over-12s.
Pfizer is currently trialling its jab on children aged between two and 11, while AstraZeneca is testing its jab on six to 17-year-olds.
Results from the trials are expected to be published around November.
It is still unclear if the AstraZeneca vaccine will be given to children in the UK — it is already restricted in adults under 40 due to its very rare links to deadly blood clots.
Mr Zahawi told Sky News this morning: ‘The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation have just delivered their advice, we’ll consider it.
‘In fact, after my morning round, we have the Covid O (committee) and then I’ll deliver a statement to Parliament.
‘But suffice to say they have looked very closely, especially at children who are more vulnerable to serious infection from Covid, children who live with adults who are more vulnerable to serious infection from Covid and, of course, 17-year-olds who are close to becoming 18 – so three months from their 18th birthday – and we will take that advice before I make a statement to Parliament later today.’
Pressed on why the Government was not looking to jab all children, Mr Zahawi added: ‘The JCVI are continuing to review that.
‘There is new emerging data of children vaccinated in America and elsewhere with a first dose, not yet enough data with a second dose, so they want to look at all the data.
‘There is a very rare signal around something called myocarditis, which is an inflammation of the heart.
‘On balance, I think the JCVI are coming down on the side of continuing to review all children, healthy children, but wanting to protect the vulnerable children first.’
British health chiefs already warn Pfizer and Moderna’s coronavirus vaccines may cause heart damage.
The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency insists the complication – inflammation of the heart muscle which can damage the organ over time – is still ‘extremely rare’ and ‘typically mild’.
Data from the US — where cases of myocarditis have been spotted — suggests the complication is most common in boys and young men.
Professor Helen Bedford, a children’s health expert at University College London, said: ‘To recommend a vaccine for any population group there needs to be careful weighing up of the risks of the disease and benefits and risks of vaccinating.
‘Healthy young people and children, become seriously ill with Covid extremely rarely, so there would be few direct benefits for them of vaccination but it would contribute to increasing population immunity.
‘There may be a stronger case for vaccinating those with existing serious health conditions.
‘Before recommending vaccination for all children and young people we therefore need to be very clear about of the safety of the vaccines in this group.
‘Although there is now good trial data and experience of vaccinating very large numbers of adults and the vaccines have been shown to be safe, we cannot automatically assume this applies to children.
‘More information is needed from trials and experience of using these vaccines in young people and children before the programme is rolled out further.’
It comes as Professor Neil Ferguson, dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’ after his grim modelling of the first wave initiated the first shutdown last March, warned yesterday that herd immunity will be impossible without vaccinating children.
Herd immunity is when so much of a population is immune to a virus, either through vaccination or previous infection, that the disease starts to decline.
Professor Ferguson told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday: ‘We’re already seeing very high numbers of cases in teenagers, and we won’t be able to reach herd immunity without significant immunity in basically people under 18.’
He also warned daily figures could reach 200,000 infections and 2,000 hospitalisations.
Professor Ferguson said: ‘We’ll know it’s worked when case numbers plateau and start going down, we know then hospitalisations and deaths will take some more weeks.
‘The best projections suggest that could happen any time from, really, mid-August to mid-September. So, we will have to be patient.
‘It’ll also take us three weeks before we know the effect of Monday, of relaxing restrictions, and what that will do to case numbers. So, it’s going to be quite a period of time.’