1 Sep 2021

Delay to vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds ‘has a cost’, Prof Devi Sridhar warns

Covid cases in England have remained steady recently, but the start of the school year is being treated with caution. In Scotland, where pupils are already back, cases have surged.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy spoke with Professor Devi Sridhar from the University of Edinburgh, who advises the Scottish government, about the next stage of the pandemic and whether 12 to 15-years-old should be offered the Covid-19 vaccination.  

PDS: I think the numbers (of Covid-19 cases) and how they’re escalating are obviously worrying because while vaccines have definitely weakened the link between cases and severe illness, it is not completely broken. And so when cases go up, inevitably there will be a rise in hospitalisations and, unfortunately, in a small number of deaths. I think it’s a really tricky position to be in, in terms of what are the options moving forward and how we continue to manage this crisis in a post-vaccine world in Scotland and in the UK.

KGM: You’re part of this conversation with one government at least. How does it go in terms of the number of acceptable deaths? Because if daily deaths are between 15 and 100, that’s what we kind of got used to recently and nobody was really kicking up a huge fuss about it politically. If they’re at 200 a day now, that’s a different order of things.

PDS: Yes, I’ve never been part of any discussions where we talk about an acceptable number of deaths and we all know the acceptable number of deaths is as minimal as zero. We don’t want to have anyone dying, especially of things that are preventable. I think the discussions are really around what is feasible to do now and what would be best for population health as a whole, because we know that there have been harms accruing from restrictions. And we know that right now there is an economic recovery that needs to come forward, educational recovery, which is also important to people’s health. And so it’s an incredibly complex moment, trying to balance all of these different considerations, to say how do we keep the numbers low enough, but also get children back to school, get people into jobs – people need to be in work to be able to feed their families. So I think it’s not a one -dimensional issue. It’s incredibly complex now with vaccines too.

KGM: You’re one of many public health experts who have been saying we should get on with vaccinating children, school children. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is saying, we’re not going to bow to pressure, we’re looking at the science. Are they looking at science that we don’t know about? How do you think this process is working?

PDS: I don’t really understand it because I’m someone who works across countries and talks to advisors across the world whether it’s the United States or Singapore, India or Hong Kong, and everyone is looking at the same data sets and coming to different conclusions than the JCVI. So New Zealand, Australia, Israel, even India, Hong Kong, Singapore, United States, Canada have all gone ahead, France, with vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds because there is a very safe and effective vaccine which in the UK the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has also approved for use. So I guess it’s just waiting and watching has a cost because the steep rise in infections is going to come in those which haven’t had an antibody protection, which is largely those zero to 19. So if there’s a chance to get them vaccinated, that’s a good hope to protect them against having illness, long Covid and possibly having to go to hospital.