The Pfizer coronavirus vaccine will be offered to young people aged 16 and 17 following updated advice from the panel of scientists who advise the government on vaccination policy.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) updated its advice today after weighing the potential harms and benefits of offering the vaccine to 16 and 17-year-olds.
How will the rollout work?
The JCVI has advised that all 16 and 17-year-olds should be offered a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, currently the only one licensed for use in children in the UK.
Children aged 12 to 17 with some serious underlying health conditions are already being offered the vaccine. The government has not ruled out vaccinating all children over 12 in the future.
The Heath Secretary, Sajid Javid, says he has asked the NHS to prepare to jab all teenagers aged 16 and 17 “as soon as possible”.
The JCVI has allowed some room for manoeuvre on dosing, saying second doses are “anticipated to be offered” about 12 weeks after the first “pending further evidence on effectiveness and safety”, with the exact details to come in a later update.
As with adults, the government is asking all eligible teenagers to come forward to receive the vaccine as quickly as possible, but it is not compulsory.
The Department of Health and Social Care confirmed to FactCheck that people aged 16 and 17 do not need to have their parents’ permission to get vaccinated.
The official position is that these young people “are presumed to have sufficient capacity to decide on their own medical treatment, unless there’s significant evidence to suggest otherwise”.
Is the vaccine safe?
The UK medicines regulator, the MHRA, has already licensed the Pfizer vaccine for use in children as young as 12 after reviewing clinical data that showed it be safe and effective.
The Pfizer vaccine is already being given to younger teenagers in other countries around the world and there is real-world data on safety.
Professor Lawrence Young from the University of Warwick said: “Increasing data from the US, where nearly 9 million 12-to-17-year-olds have been vaccinated, and the extension of vaccines to teenagers in Canada and France, has provided reassurance that the Pfizer vaccine is safe, with serious side effects being very rare.”
The JCVI did take into account recent reports of inflammation of the muscle and membrane around the heart following the use of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
The committee said: “These extremely rare adverse reactions have been more frequent shortly after the second dose, and in younger individuals and males; data from the United States indicate about 60 reported cases per million second doses in younger males, with reporting rates after the first dose being 6 to 7-fold lower.”
Why do the benefits outweigh the risks?
Prof Russell Viner, Professor of Child and Adolescent Health at University College London, said: “There are risks from any vaccine and we now are clearer that the risks of inflammation of the heart or heart linings (myocarditis or pericarditis) are also low (around 30-100 per million) and most cases are mild and recover quickly.”
He said this compares to risk of severe illness from Covid-19 in 16-17-year-olds of “about 1 in 60,000 in England during the first year of the pandemic”, although the risk of death in this age group was much lower at around 6 in a million.
The JCVI said it took into account the risk of “long Covid” in young people as well as effects on their mental health, the impact of control measures on education and the possibility that vaccinating young people will cut hospitalisations and deaths in older adults.
Many scientists assume that increasing the percentage of the population who have been jabbed will increase the “herd immunity” effects of the vaccination programme, helping to bring the pandemic under control in the UK, although there is considerable uncertainty about when, if ever, the disease will finally die out.