It is a situation that is, without doubt, playing out in households across the country right now. A primary school-age child with a cough, then a fever. A lateral flow test displaying the dreaded two red lines. Just hours before, there had been a call from a teacher – another pupil had come down with confirmed Covid. For Fran Simpson, mother to Magnus, five, it all felt ‘pretty much inevitable’.
When schools returned in September, all Covid restrictions – mask-wearing, one-way systems and ‘bubbles’ that require children to isolate if someone else in the group tests positive – had been dropped.
Fran, a psychology lecturer from North Yorkshire, continues: ‘Every class has had at least five cases each over the past month or so, and it seems like many parents aren’t testing their kids any more. It feels like it’s getting worse by the week.’
Although she’s been double-jabbed, as is her partner, Fran says she’s nervous she’ll catch Covid too. ‘I’m paranoid, as I’ve had Covid once before and it made me really sick – and so has my other child Saskia, who is nine. And she’s not vaccinated.’
Right now, the rate of Covid infection in children aged six to 11 is twice the national average, according to data from the Office For National Statistics. The only age-group more likely to have the virus are 12 to 15-year-olds. But while teens are now being offered a jab, young children are not.
When asked at last week’s Downing Street press conference if there were any plans to vaccinate younger children, Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, indicated they were not, adding that children were less likely to transmit the virus.
Dr Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, pictured during a media briefing on coronavirus in Downing Street, London (file photo)
Speaking to The Mail on Sunday, Professor Adam Finn, paediatric expert at the University of Bristol and member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), confirmed this, saying: ‘Younger children do not tend to get sick from Covid, so this isn’t a priority because they won’t be burdening the health service.’
It’s a vastly different approach to the one taken by health chiefs in the US, who plan to begin rolling out the Pfizer vaccine to primary school-aged children by the end of this month. The proposal came immediately after the publication of data from Pfizer showing a third of the dose given to adults is safe for young children and triggers a strong immune response. No serious side effects were recorded.
Previous studies show the jab stops people passing on the virus in at least a third of cases. Now, with warnings that Britain’s daily case numbers could soon top 100,000, there are calls from some of the UK’s scientists for us to follow suit.
Writing in The Lancet medical journal last month, a group of Britain’s top Covid experts argued that such a strategy would be ‘twice as effective at reducing the spread of the virus as vaccinating adolescents’. Their calculations showed that vaccinating five to 11-year-olds could reduce Covid hospitalisations and mortality by 60 per cent, and reduce instances of long Covid by three-quarters.
Dr Peter English, a public health expert and past chairman of the British Medical Association Public Health Medicine Committee, describes vaccinating young children as ‘crucial’ for curbing the scale of the UK’s epidemic.
‘As cases continue to rapidly rise, more and more children will bring the virus home to their parents or grandparents, who are more likely to get severely sick and need hospital assistance,’ he says. Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical expert at King’s College London, says: ‘If we want to shut off the circulation of this virus we need to reduce the number of people who can catch it.
Potent argument: Experts believe that vaccinating five to 11-year-olds would be twice as effective at reducing the spread of the virus as giving the jab to adolescents
36 per cent of nine-year-olds would say yes to a Covid jab, according to a school survey of 27,000 nine to 18-year-olds.
‘That means vaccinating everyone, including younger children.’
Last Thursday, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, whose suggestion last year to extend the gap between vaccine doses from three weeks to three months proved a success, released a report that called for vaccinating under-12s ‘to be made a priority’.
So why aren’t Government scientists following this advice?
Part of the answer lies in the fact that, unarguably, Covid poses very little risk to the average primary school child. Most are unlikely to even suffer symptoms.
And when looked at in this way, as the JCVI did, the benefits of the vaccine are negligible.
Prof Finn, and others, argue the risk of vaccinating younger children may be greater than the risk of them catching the virus, citing increasing reports of heart inflammation issues in young adults. The condition, called myocarditis, leads to chest pain, breathlessness and a pounding or fluttering heartbeat.
Several hundred cases related to the vaccine have been reported around the world, mostly in 16 to 24-year-old men. For this reason, the UK Government is offering children aged 12 to 17 just one dose of the vaccine, as a precaution.
‘Myocarditis appears to be very rare and people seem to recover quite quickly,’ says Prof Finn. ‘But we don’t know if, down the line, people affected might develop further heart problems as a result. In older age groups, Covid poses a greater threat, for the benefit of getting vaccinated clearly outweighs the risk of a rare side effect. But in younger children, the chances of them getting severely ill with Covid are just as low as the risk of developing myocarditis.’
Previous studies show the jab stops people passing on the virus in at least a third of cases. Now, with warnings that Britain’s daily case numbers could soon top 100,000, there are calls from some of the UK’s scientists for us to follow the US’s suit (file photo)
Covid Q&A: Will vaccines stop the spread or is natural immunity as good as a jab?
Q: How much less likely are you to spread Covid if you have been fully vaccinated?
A: People who are double jabbed are far less likely to catch Covid and then go on to infect others. This has been proven in several studies.
Microbiologist Christopher Byron Brooke at the University of Illinois said last week: ‘[Vaccines] absolutely do reduce transmission. Vaccinated people do transmit the virus in some cases, but the data are super crystal-clear that the risk of transmission for a vaccinated individual is much, much lower.’
A Dutch study found that vaccinated people infected with the Delta variant of Covid are 63 per cent less likely to infect members of the same household who were unvaccinated. Given this, researchers suggested the vaccine could reduce transmission by more than 80 per cent overall.
A team at Yale University looked at data from Israel and came to a similar conclusion: the overall vaccine effectiveness against transmission was 89 per cent.
Earlier studies suggested that vaccinated people might carry ‘as much virus’ as people who are unvaccinated, but the methods used in this research have since been called into question.
Q: How about natural immunity – isn’t that just as good as a jab?
A: All immunity is ‘natural’, whether it comes from catching Covid or being vaccinated against it.
Both events trigger the body’s immune system to react and create cells that are able to recognise and fight off the virus, should it come into contact with it again. However, evidence shows that fewer people will be protected by immunity derived from an infection than with vaccination.
A Danish study suggested that, six months after catching Covid, over-65s had only 47 per cent protection. However, this is older data and reinfection is expected to be more likely with the Delta variant.
New data suggests unvaccinated individuals should expect, on average, to be reinfected with Covid-19 every 16 months, although for those who are older this could be far more frequent, with some scientists suggesting that reinfection in those without vaccination could occur after just three months.
But other scientists disagree. Firstly, the clinical trials on under 12s completed so far have found no cases of myocarditis – and Dr Ward says studies show the risk ‘diminishes’ under the age of 16.
Dr English says: ‘The risk of getting myocarditis from Covid is far greater than the risk of getting it after vaccination.’
Experts say the Government’s scientific advisers are also relying on ‘outdated’ evidence about the benefits of vaccination in terms of slowing spread of the virus into the wider community.
Early on in the pandemic, the prevailing view among scientists – based on Chinese studies – was that few young children caught Covid, and even fewer passed it on. But the Delta variant has changed the picture dramatically.
Dr David Strain, Covid expert at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, says the appearance of this highly contagious mutation has turned children into ‘viral reservoirs’.
He says: ‘We are starting to see a pattern that suggests the virus is spreading from schools into the community. In the hospital, we are seeing more and more cases of parents and grandparents coming in who have been isolating from the world, and the only social contact they have had is young family members.’
It’s not the first time the JCVI has ignored the community-wide benefit of jabbing young people. It came to a similar conclusion with children aged 12 to 15, advising that the ‘margin of benefit’ for vaccinating adolescents was ‘too small’ for it to support the rollout.
This decision was later overruled by Prof Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, on the basis that vaccinated teens would be less likely to catch Covid and then have to isolate, and this would benefit their mental health, education and social development.
Dr English says: ‘The JCVI has insisted on not looking at the risk of children passing the virus to parents, or the risk of long Covid. This isn’t a typical approach to vaccines. We offer young children a flu jab not to protect themselves, but to protect vulnerable adults around them who they could pass it on to.’
University of Cambridge data published last week offered one possible argument against jabbing children: three-quarters of five to 14-year-olds have already had Covid and will be somewhat protected. Prof Finn said: ‘It’s possible that so many children will end up infected that cases will begin to go down because of the wall of immunity built up.’
But Prof Ward says there is not yet enough data to show if immunity from natural infection can match that of vaccines or last as long. ‘We aren’t yet sure how robust natural immunity is – so it makes sense to top it up with a vaccine just in case.’
Dr Finn said it was likely that the JCVI would take a similar approach to how it handled approving the vaccines for pregnant women, waiting for real-world data to arrive from the US before making a decision.
‘You have to go a bit carefully with this kind of call,’ he says.
But other scientists say this has the potential to backfire – as it did in pregnant women. They have been among the most reluctant to have the vaccine, said to be due to mixed Government messages about how safe it was for them. UK vaccine chiefs waited until data on 130,000 vaccinated pregnant women in the US was published before giving it the green light, leading to continued hesitancy. Currently, a fifth of the most critically ill Covid patients in hospitals in England since July are unvaccinated pregnant women.
Parents may be similarly hesitant and read the JCVI’s caution as a sign that there’s something to worry about. Simon Jones, 41, father to Dylan, ten, and Rory, eight, seems to think so. Rory tested positive for Covid recently, having come home from school with a cough. The family have all, so far, tested negative.
However, they feel extremely cautious. ‘You hear about inaccurate results. We don’t want to be the ones who give Covid to everyone else, so we’re isolating,’ says Simon.
Currently, a fifth of the most critically ill Covid patients in hospitals in England since July are unvaccinated pregnant women (file photo)
The US and Canada are expected to soon approve vaccines for under-12s, while United Arab Emirates and China have already done so.
Would he have the boys vaccinated if it meant an end to situations like this? ‘No,’ is the instant response from the advertising sales executive, who lives with his partner in East London. ‘Well, I just don’t know about it – you hear about the risks. I’d need to know more before I said yes.’
According to a survey carried out in June, a third of parents of children aged six to 12 say they would be unlikely to get their child vaccinated if a jab was made available. More than half of parents who said they were unlikely to vaccinate their children said they were worried about long-term effects.
One in five said they would wait to see how well the vaccines work on other children.
Poor vaccine take-up is already a problem in adolescents. Only 17 per cent of children aged 12 to 15 have come forward for their jab. Experts say some of this is due to hesitancy among parents, which may have been avoided had it not been for ‘mixed messaging’ about safety.
Prof Iain Buchan, public health expert at the University of Liverpool, said the situation has been worsened by the ‘pandemic of misinformation’ online.
Prof Buchan, who has helped co-ordinate the rollout of vaccines in Liverpool schools, said: ‘We’re seeing rising numbers of anti-vax protesters outside schools and death threats sent to vaccinators. This could in part be responsible for the lumpy take-up in some parts of the country.’
Despite authoring the Lancet study arguing the clear benefit to vaccinating five to 11-year-olds, Dr Strain says he understands why parents would be hesitant. ‘Yes, the vaccines are proven to be safe, but I have young children and would like to see some more data before I get them vaccinated.’
Fran Simpson, however, says she would ‘go for it immediately’ if Magnus was offered a jab.
‘If there’s anything we can do the bring down the number of infections in schools, we should do it,’ she says.
Fran also believes it is important to vaccinate children to protect them from long Covid, after Saskia developed the condition last year. She suffered from severe fatigue and breathing difficulties for months, and still suffers occasional flare-ups. As a result, Fran helped found the charity Long Covid Kids, which supports families.
She says: ‘You hear people say the risk to children is small, but I’ve seen first-hand the impact this disease can have on them.’