Nadhim Zahawi, Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, makes a statement to the House of Commons on the vaccination programme against covid-19 and the recommendation of the United Kingdom’s chief medical officers to offer one dose of the Pfizer vaccine to the 12 to 15-year-old age group.
The Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment (Nadhim Zahawi)
I am grateful, Mr Speaker. With your permission, I would like to make a statement on our vaccination programme against covid-19.
We know that vaccinations are our best defence against the virus. Our jabs have already prevented over 112,000 deaths, more than 143,000 hospitalisations and over 24 million infections. They have built a vast wall of defence for the British people.
Earlier this year, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency approved the covid-19 vaccines supplied by Pfizer and Moderna for 12 to 17-year-olds. It confirmed that both vaccines are safe and effective for this age group. Following that decision, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended vaccination for all 16 and 17-year-olds and for 12 to 15-year-olds with serious underlying health conditions. It next looked at whether we should extend our offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds, which would have brought us into line with what is already happening in countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Israel and the United States of America. It concluded that there are health benefits of vaccinating this cohort, although they are finely balanced.
It was never in the JCVI’s remit to consider the wider impacts of vaccinations, such as the benefits for children in education or the mental health benefits that come from people knowing that they are protected from this deadly virus. It therefore advised that the Government may wish to seek further views on those wider impacts from the United Kingdom’s chief medical officers. The Secretary of State, together with the Health Ministers from the devolved nations, accepted that advice. Our CMOs consulted with clinical experts and public health professionals from across the United Kingdom, such as the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. They have also benefited from having data from the United States of America, Canada and Israel, where vaccines have already been offered to children aged 12 to 15 years old.
Early this morning, we received advice from the chief medical officers, along with our counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We have made that advice publicly available and deposited it in the Library at 2 pm today. The unanimous recommendation of the United Kingdom’s chief medical officers is to make a universal offer of one dose of the Pfizer vaccine to the 12 to 15-year-old age group, with further JCVI guidance needed before any decision on a second dose. They have been clear that they are making this recommendation on the basis of the benefits to children alone, and not on the benefits to adults or wider society. I can confirm that the Government have accepted the recommendation. We will now move with the same sense of urgency that we have had at every point in our vaccination programme.
As the chief medical officers reminded us today, whatever decision teenagers and parents take, they must be supported and not stigmatised in any way. We must continue to respect individual choice. As a father, the decisions that I take on behalf of my own children give me extra pause for thought. People who would not think twice about getting the jab for themselves will naturally have more questions when it comes to vaccinating their children. I completely understand that, but to those who remain undecided I want to say this: the MHRA is the best medical regulator in the world, and it has rigorously reviewed the safety of our vaccines and concluded that they are safe for 12 to 15-year-olds. We continue to have a comprehensive safety surveillance strategy in place across all age groups to monitor the safety of all the covid-19 vaccines that are approved for use in the United Kingdom.
It is important to remember that our teenagers have shown great public spirit at every point during this pandemic. They have stuck to the rules so that lives could be saved and people kept safe, and they have been some of the most enthusiastic proponents of vaccines. That is at least in part because they have experienced the damage that comes with outbreaks of covid-19. More than half of 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom have had the jab since becoming eligible just last month.
At every point in our vaccination programme, we have been guided by the best clinical advice. The advice that we have received from the four chief medical officers today sets out their view that 12 to 15-year-olds will benefit from vaccination against covid-19. We will follow that advice and continue on that vital path, which is making more and more people in this country safe. I commend this statement to the House.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab/Co-op)
I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the guidance today from the chief medical officers and the response of the Government tonight.
Children may not have been the face of this crisis but they have been among its biggest victims. Children have lost months in in-person learning, and have spent weeks cut off from friends and family. We still do not fully understand the long-term mental health implications of this, especially in poorer areas where deprivation already has widespread consequences for the health and wellbeing of our children. Being in school is not just about learning; children often access health services through school as well. I therefore particularly welcome the CMOs’ recognition of the importance of avoiding the disruption of being out of school in making this decision. We are also pleased that the Government have now made the decision, given that other nations have been vaccinating children for some months.
But many of our constituents will rightly have questions. Will the Minister explain to the House what the next stage in the children’s vaccination programme will look like? By what date does he anticipate that children will be vaccinated? On the roll-out, he will know that, for TB, HPV and children’s flu vaccinations in primary schools, it is often school nurses, health visitors and specialist vaccination teams who go to schools directly and vaccinate. Will that model be used in this case, or will children instead be asked to go to the vaccine hubs run by primary care because it is the Pfizer vaccine?
Will it be the responsibility of the parents to arrange their child’s vaccination, or will the local NHS arrange it with schools, year group by year group, or class by class? Will the flu vaccine that is to be expanded to secondary school children this year be delivered at the same time as the covid vaccine, or at a separate time?
The Minister rightly said that vaccinating children is a benefit to those children but will also reduce transmission, and in that respect it is a benefit to wider society, but children and young people, and society itself, will in turn benefit if we drive up vaccination rates among adults. In the most deprived areas, fewer than 70% of the adult population are vaccinated; in the least deprived areas it is more than 90%. Among 25 to 30-year-olds, 55% are on their second dose; among 30 to 35-year-olds, 68% are on their second dose; and among 35 to 39-year-olds, 75% are on their second dose. What will he do to drive up vaccination rates among adults, because that is key to pushing down overall infection rates?
Of course, parents will want information. In the past, the Minister has suggested that this vaccination will not go ahead without the consent of parents, but he will know that the Gillick competence principle suggests that a child under 16 can consent to their treatment if the child is believed to have the understanding and intelligence to appreciate what is involved. Can he confirm what the Government’s position is in rolling out this vaccination and whether the consent of parents is necessary? In the past, he has said that it is necessary, as has the Secretary of State for Education; the CMOs seemed to suggest something else today at the press briefing.
There is nothing more precious for a parent than their child. We therefore support the approach of the Government today and welcome the advice and the recommendations of the chief medical officers. However, I hope the Minister will understand that parents, in coming to this decision, will want all the information they can possibly get hold of, and I hope the Government provide it.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his support, for his points about guidance to the parents and of course to the children, and for his points about the long-term mental health consequences of this pandemic for school-age children.
I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman that the NHS—it is incredibly efficient and well-equipped, because it has been running the school age vaccination programme for many, many years for other vaccines—will be the primary vaccination infrastructure that we will use to deliver this vaccine. If there are schools where that is unable to be delivered, we will use the rest of the covid vaccine infrastructure, including vaccination centres, to deliver that in a safe and appropriate way. My point is to reassure him and parents up and down the country that it will be the school age vaccination programme that has run in schools. Teachers and parents are well-versed in that process.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about vaccine uptake. He will recall that I said at this Dispatch Box on 13 February, in launching the vaccine uptake programme, that the NHS continued to put effort and resource into making vaccines available and easily accessible to the most deprived communities and to all ethnic groups.
We will continue to redouble our efforts, including with the booster programme, which will come later this month. We have had the interim advice from the JCVI on boosting for flu and covid. The uptake of both should increase the uptake in those communities. We have spent a lot of time looking at that.
The right hon. Gentleman asked an important question about the consent process, and I want to spend a little time on that. As with all vaccinations for children, parental consent will be sought. The consent process will be handled by each school in its usual way and will provide sufficient time for parents to provide their consent. Children aged 12 to 15 will also be provided with information, usually in the form of a leaflet for their own use and to share and discuss with their parents prior to the date of immunisation and the scheduled time for it. Parental, guardian or carer consent will be sought by the school age immunisation providers prior to vaccination, in line with other school vaccination programmes.
In the rare event that a parent does not consent, but the teenager wants to have the vaccine, there is a process by which the school age vaccination clinicians discuss this with initially the parent and the child to see whether they can reach consensus. If not, and the child is deemed to be Gillick competent, the vaccine will take place. That is very rare, but on the whole this is something that the NHS is very well versed in delivering for other vaccination programmes.
Jeremy Hunt (South West Surrey) (Con)
This is an incredibly sensitive decision but, in an open society, the Government have done exactly the right thing, which is to be open. The narrow health benefits to children are marginal, but the broader health and social benefits are considerable. Most importantly, this is one of the last pieces of the jigsaw if we are going to be able to say we have done everything possible to stop another winter lockdown. However, the final piece of that jigsaw, learning from Israel, is to have booster jabs. Could the Minister tell the House when we will have a decision on boosters? Could he also confirm that we will have no problems with supply after the Valneva decision today and with flu jabs, if we are going to have this big expansion of jabbing later in the autumn?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his important question. He is right to identify that this is a sensitive issue, which is why it was right for the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to take its time to look at the data from other countries on first doses and second doses and for the chief medical officers to then do the work unimpeded which they needed to do. It is right that we follow their advice tonight.
On the booster campaign, we have received the interim advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation—it was published on 30 June this year— on a potential booster programme, including flu and covid vaccine. I can reassure my right hon. Friend that the decision on Valneva will not impact our booster vaccination programme. We await the final advice. The JCVI has received the data from the COV-Boost study, where we looked at all the different vaccine brands—in some instances, full doses and half doses—as to which is the best vaccine to boost with.
I assure him that later this month we will begin a major booster programme. On flu—of course, the flu programme has already begun, and I assure him that we have the supplies for a major programme for both—we are looking at the really ambitious number of 35 million and, when we get the final advice from JCVI, the booster programme will be equally ambitious.
Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)
I, too, welcome the decision to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds. Scotland’s NHS is also primed to deliver vaccinations as quickly as possible, but it is a pity that there was a delay and that the opportunity to vaccinate during the summer holidays was missed. In Scotland, where our schools went back before English schools, we have seen a huge surge, and we are seeing the same rise in Northern Ireland and Wales. That may happen here as well. I wonder how much of the delay was down to the remit given to the JCVI, which seemed to focus on hospitalisation and death—quite rare, thankfully, among children—rather than considering the wider impacts of education and socialisation loss or of long covid, which we are seeing in young people and children. Was the delay about the remit? Was the JCVI given a narrow remit? Or was it about whether Pfizer and Moderna vaccines would be sufficient to allow the group to have been vaccinated in the summer?
There are rumours that there will be a U-turn tonight on yesterday’s U-turn on vaccine passports. I would be grateful for the Minister clarifying that. Whether that is the case or not, this chaos undermines public health messaging, creates confusion among the public and creates rejection of whatever decision finally comes.
The hon. Lady asked a number of questions that I will try to address in order. She asked about the JCVI’s remit, which was very much around what it is clinically qualified to address. That is why it advised that the CMOs needed to look at the wider impact on children specifically. There was no issue at all around shortage of vaccines, and I am confident that we have the vaccine supply that we need for both this recommendation, which we are accepting, and the booster campaign.
It was important that the JCVI took its time and looked at both first-dose and second-dose data on the rare signal around myocarditis and pericarditis. The United Kingdom has sometimes been an outlier to other nations, but on the whole we have got these decisions right because we rely on that expert clinical advice. I hope that gives reassurance to families up and down the country.
On vaccine passports, the Secretary of State for Health made it clear that we will not go ahead with vaccine certification for nightclubs or other venues. No one—certainly not on the Government side—would have moved forward with that happily. [Interruption.] If we are to have a grown-up debate, it is important for the whole House to remember that the virus is still with us and that we all want the same thing: to transition it from pandemic to endemic status so that we can have a sustainable return to normality as quickly as possible.
Dr Caroline Johnson (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con)
I have given many vaccines in my time, including hundreds of covid vaccines more recently, but I am not comfortable with vaccinating teenagers to prevent educational disruption. Under the current rules, no child needs to isolate if they are a contact. They do so only if they are a positive case and, for them, the maximum is eight days of schooling—and that is only if they catch coronavirus during term time. Half of children have already had it and are very unlikely to get it again. Does the Minister therefore really believe that vaccinating 3 million children to prevent an average of four days or less off school is reasonable?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question, and I thank her for the work she has done and continues to do on the vaccination programme. All I would say to her is that I think it is important that the Government accept the final decision—the unanimous decision—of the four chief medical officers for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and offer the vaccine. Of course, parental consent will be sought, but it is only right that we offer the one-dose vaccine to 12 to 15-year-olds as per the advice received today.
Florence Eshalomi (Vauxhall) (Lab/Co-op)
I thank the Minister for the statement. I have highlighted many times in this Chamber the low take-up among some communities, specifically our black and minority ethnic communities. They are the same communities that will be hesitant about their children coming forward. They will be the same communities, if the vaccines have to be administered in school, that will make sure their children do not go to school that day. So I want to know what additional support and information—in different languages and reaching out to those communities—there will be to properly inform them so that they can make the decision about whether or not their children are vaccinated.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Actually, on her final sentence about proper information, I think it is important not to stigmatise any parent whatsoever. It is right that we supply the information, and there will be an extensive information programme that the school-age vaccination team will deliver and work on with schools. The Minister for School Standards, who is sitting on my left, and his team, whom I have to commend, have been engaged throughout today in making sure that that information does get through to parents to make that decision.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con)
Given the earlier decision of the JCVI, the low risk to children and the fact that children are not significant vectors of transmitting this awful disease, will my hon. Friend ensure that the chief medical officer makes it very clear to parents who may be concerned about vaccinating their children why this needs to happen and what difference it will make to their children? The Secretary of State for Education has said that parental consent would “always”—always—be asked before they receive the vaccine, and I just want the Minister to clear that up because understandably, and rightly in my view, parents will want to be able to consent. Finally, could I ask him how much this will cost financially?
I am grateful to the Chair of the Education Committee, who has rightly been incredibly engaged in the process and the debate around it. I confirm to him that parents will be asked for their consent, and information will be made available to enable them fully to understand the recommendation of the chief medical officers for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I will happily write to him about the cost of this part of the vaccination programme.
Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
The Minister is right to say that the virus is still with us. This morning, there were 91 people hospitalised in my local hospital trust compared with 25 on 1 June, and vaccination for 16-year-olds and above—double vaccination—remains stubbornly stuck at 50% in my local authority area. Apart from this measure, what does the Minister have in mind to address these serious issues?
I am grateful for the hon. Member’s question. He raises an important issue, and he has raised it with me in the MPs briefings as well. One thing we continue to do is to have the evergreen offer so that people can come forward at any time. I can share with the House that in the past week, for example, in the first phase of groups 1 to 9—the most vulnerable as per the JCVI recommendation, as the House will recall—we still had 30,000 people come forward for their first dose, and out of the second phase of groups 10 to 12, we had 70,000. Therefore 100,000 people took advantage of the evergreen offer. As we embark—the planning is well under way—on the booster programme, we continue to drive up the evergreen offer for first-dose people to come forward.
The shadow Secretary of State mentioned his experience in his constituency and in his region about the drive to increase uptake among different ethnic groups. That continues to be our priority, and we continue to make sure that those communities get not just the information but access to the vaccines. We are making it as easy as possible for them to access the vaccine without an appointment: they can just walk in and get their jab.
Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con)
I listened carefully to the Minister’s answer to the Chair of the Health and Social Committee, and perhaps I may press him a little. He said that the Government have received only interim advice from the JCVI about the adult booster campaign, but this morning outside the House the Prime Minister said that the booster campaign would be going ahead and had already been approved. Have the Government received the final advice from the JCVI about the adult booster campaign, which it said could be different from its initial advice? Have the Government made a decision about the details of the adult booster campaign and whether it is indeed going ahead?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s important question. We have received interim advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which we have published, and it has now received the Cov-Boost data. The interim advice was about vaccinating the most vulnerable with a booster for covid and for flu. It is advising a two-stage process, and stage one is to offer the booster vaccines to those in the old 1 to 4 cohorts plus the immunocompromised, and then to groups 5 to 9. That is the right way to proceed. We have not yet received its final advice. It could be different to the interim advice, but boosting preparations are well under way. Clearly that final advice is predicated on which vaccine delivers the highest level of protection and durability.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
I call Sammy Wilson.
Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)
Mr Toby Perkins (Chesterfield) (Lab)
I have great sympathy for the Minister for having to come here to try to respond to the latest musings from the Prime Minister’s mind. I believe he is saying that when this morning the Prime Minister said that the programme was going ahead, the final advice had not been received and, indeed, while preparations are ongoing, there may be subsequent advice that once again changes everything. Is that what the Minister is saying? How does he expect people to have confidence when the information coming from the Government appears to be so arbitrary and constantly changing, with no real clarity or medical robustness to it at all?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, although I think there is an inherent unfairness in his final few words. The whole House, indeed the nation, would agree that this virus and pandemic have been challenging not just for this country and Government, but for the rest of the world. We have had to learn rapidly about the virus and how it behaves in the human body, and there has been the incredible work of the scientists who developed the vaccine, the NHS and everyone involved in the vaccine roll-out. The interim advice is important and has allowed us to have preparations well under way to deliver the covid booster programme. I am confident that the final advice, depending on the COV-Boost study, will allow us to boost the programme this month, and boost at scale.
Dr Liam Fox (North Somerset) (Con)
Who will be responsible for writing to give advice to medical professionals on the risk-benefit analysis of giving a relatively new vaccine to 12-year-olds? Will that be the Chief Medical Officer, or the JCVI? How will the Government ensure timely and well-explained advice to parents, who will be the first point of contact and who may feel anxious about giving advice for which they are not properly qualified?
My right hon. Friend raises a really important question. Of course, it was the CMOs who led the further work that took place and who made the announcement today. Health is devolved, as he knows, so the chief medical officer for Scotland will take that on in ensuring that the system—whether it is primary care or other parts of the system—understands the advice in full. The school-age vaccination programme is the major element of this particular part of the vaccination programme. It is very well versed in working with parents and teachers, and of course with young people to make sure that they have all the information they need to be able to take it back to their parents, get the consent and get their vaccination on time.
Madam Deputy Speaker
I call Sammy Wilson.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Not too many people pretend to be me—not even in my own party.
I find the Minister’s statement rather bizarre. First, the main medical reason given for the decision is not to protect young people from covid but to protect their mental health, their educational wellbeing and their ability to associate in society. Does he accept, first, that the way this measure will be rolled out could lead to children being bullied, stigmatised and named on Instagram, Twitter and so on, because the whole school will know whether they go for a vaccine or not, and secondly, given that school principals can make the decision whether a group of individuals, a class or a year group is closed down if people are found to have tested positive in the school, that this is no guarantee that educational disadvantage will not be attacked either?
I am grateful for the right hon. Member’s question. Actually, quite the opposite is the case. First, he will know that school bubbles have gone. The school-age vaccination programme and those clinicians are really very well equipped and very well versed in dealing with vaccines in schools, so this will not be a new thing for them. Their ability to gain consent and communicate exactly why the chief medical officers have gone ahead is, in my view, an important element of the decision to accept the recommendation tonight. So I would say quite the opposite: it is right that we accept the recommendation tonight.
As I said in my statement, no one—no parent or child—should be stigmatised for making a decision. We have been transparent all the way through this process, and we have been incredibly careful, as we have demonstrated. Many other countries now boast that their vaccination programmes have reached far higher numbers than ours. I have always said that this is not a race; it is about doing the right thing for children and adults to transition this virus from pandemic to endemic.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green) (Con)
I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement, but I want to return to the issue of where the children will make this decision. The reality is that we have parents taking responsibility for their children, and at the end of the day we say we are going to ask them whether or not they give responsibility for their child on this matter. However, where there is a dispute, we say that the school will decide whether or not that child has the capacity to make that decision. This is the point: the pressure will grow on the child. There is no way of legislating for this greater good concept that says, “The school may be in trouble, and your class may be in deep difficulty, if you do not take the vaccine.” I simply say to my hon. Friend that this is a real problem for us. It will lead to disputes in families and real problems about children’s mental health in the opposite direction, as they are put under pressure. I wonder whether he and the Government will think again about this. Without serious, clear guidance, it will lead to children being in a worse state than they would have been without the vaccine.
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s really important question. I want to spend a few seconds explaining this to the House, because it is really important. He mentioned that the decision would lead to teachers having to explain; actually, it is quite the opposite. It is not the teacher’s responsibility to do that; it is a qualified clinician’s. The school-age vaccination programme is very well equipped to do that in a discreet and careful way with parents and with the child. However, that will be on very rare occasions; the bulk of vaccinations will be conducted only if there is parental consent.
Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
It is really important that every parent has access to a supported conversation—we know that that is a very positive public health intervention—but it is important for every young person too, because they also want to be equipped with information. I see the Minister nodding. In light of that, and not just one new vaccine programme but a second one, can he explain the resourcing of staff to not only vaccinate but provide that information? In addition, can he explain why 11-year-olds are being excluded? Our secondary system runs from 11 upwards, as opposed to 12.
Our regulator has only regulated the vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds. I reiterate the point that the school-age vaccination programme and the infra-structure we have is very well versed in delivering vaccines and gaining consent. Of course, the NHS in England—the same is happening in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—has been thinking through exactly how the communication, the comms and the leaflets, will be provided to parents so that they have the information necessary to be able to make the decision for their child to be vaccinated.
Sir Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale West) (Con)
The Minister praised JCVI, quite rightly, but it is clear from the advice it gave recently that what was weighing most heavily on its mind was the lack of long-term evidence about the possible adverse reactions due to myocarditis following vaccination. As it said just 10 days ago:
“substantial uncertainty remains regarding the health risks associated with these adverse events.”
What has happened in the last 10 days to remove that uncertainty?
The important thing to remember is that the JCVI’s advice was very much predicated on what it was clinically qualified to look at. It was its recommendation to the chief medical officers to then take a further look. My hon. Friend will recall that JCVI’s advice was that, on balance, it is beneficial for children to have the vaccine rather than not have the vaccine, but not enough to recommend a universal programme, hence its advice to CMOs to go further on that. The work the CMOs have done in recommending a single dose is very much predicated on the data they have seen. JCVI, by the way, were in the room during the deliberations from America and elsewhere on the myocarditis on the second dose.
Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
I welcome the statement from the Minister tonight. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) when he says that clear information will be key. I would just suggest that social media might be more effective with young people rather than leaflets.
May I raise an issue around children with special educational needs? Some may already have been vaccinated because of vulnerabilities. Will the Minister outline what arrangements have been put in place for schools and cohorts of individual children with special educational needs? It will need a lot more effort and time to ensure we get them vaccinated.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. A number of children with special educational needs would have been vaccinated already, because they would have come under the earlier JCVI recommendation. The school-age vaccination programme does pay particular and careful consideration to those schools, working with school leaders and making sure that parents are able to get all the information. I mentioned leaflets earlier, but of course there will be a digital information programme as well.
Miriam Cates (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
Given the known and unknown risks of vaccinating healthy children, and given that between 40% and 70% of children are estimated already to have covid antibodies, what plans does my hon. Friend have to offer antibody testing to children so that parents can make an informed decision about whether vaccination may be in their child’s best interests?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s important question. As we now accept the recommendation from the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is also right for us to look at the question that she raised. I will happily write back to her after this statement.
Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
The Minister will be aware that some estimates suggest that a staggering 900 million days of face-to-face schooling have been lost since the start of the pandemic. In that context, I welcome the Government’s decision today, but children’s vaccination is only one part of the puzzle—so are improved ventilation, funding for air purifiers in classrooms and, in some crowded environments, continuing with face coverings. Given that two Department for Education Ministers are sitting on the Front Bench alongside him—the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb) and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford)—will he press his colleagues to provide that funding for schools so that they can remain open safely for as many children as possible? Will the Government give us a cast-iron guarantee that we will not see any school closures this winter?
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s support for tonight’s decision. The Department for Education is rolling out, I think, 300,000 carbon dioxide monitors. It is very important that ventilation is very much part of what we do as we transition this virus from pandemic to endemic status.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
May I come back to the issue of parental consent and, in doing so, declare my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests? I welcome the fact that this will be done with parental consent, because all the pressures would be far greater if it were left up to individual children, with all the peer pressure and stigma that that could bring. Will the Minister tell us what the situation will be for children in care? Will the default position be, as corporate parents, that all children in the care system will be vaccinated? What then happens if the birth parent or the long-term foster carer has an objection to that?
I thank my hon. Friend for his important question. The deemed carer for that child will be requested to give that consent.
Jon Trickett (Hemsworth) (Lab)
Is it not clear, first, that many other countries have been vaccinating this age range for some time; secondly, that school classes have been engines for transmission; and thirdly, that this is not in the end a medical decision, but about wider social welfare? That has been plain for some time, well before the school holidays. In those circumstances, the timing of this announcement is odd. Given the fact that prevarication, delay and hesitation, which the Government have been guilty of, can simply lead to further transmission, is this not a bit late?
I hope I addressed that question earlier. I think quite the opposite, and the reason I say that is that it is right that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation has taken its time. It has looked at data from other countries that proceeded with this vaccination programme and has looked at data not just on first dose, but on second dose, which has only recently been made available. It is much better to be careful than to proceed with a vaccination programme in a way that may not be appropriate. We have some of the best clinical advice in the world. It is only right that we listen to that and proceed as carefully as we can as we transition this virus from pandemic to endemic.
Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
Just returning to stigmatisation, will the Minister guarantee that a child’s ability to receive an education equally with their peers will never be linked to their vaccination status?
My hon. Friend asks a really important question around vaccination status. I can certainly say to him that that will not be used in any way. The whole purpose of this is to accept the clinical advice and to protect children. It was remiss of me, in response to an earlier question, not to say that the CMOs looked very specifically at the mental health and other implications for the child, not for the rest of society.
Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
Is the Minister concerned that some children’s hospitals are seeing winter levels of respiratory syncytial virus, another virus that affects young children? What will he do to ensure that those who are clinically extremely vulnerable are continually monitored so that they can access the flu vaccine and the covid vaccine in a timely manner without overlap?
That is a matter that we spend a lot of time on, and I know that the NHS and school-age vaccination programmes have been working hard on it. We have operationalised flu vaccination, but the other vaccines, as the hon. Lady quite rightly reminds the House, are equally important for children’s health.
Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con)
To what extent does the vaccination of a child reduce his or her liability to transmit the virus to a vulnerable person such as an elderly grandparent?
I will happily write to my right hon. Friend with the data that the JCVI and the CMOs have looked at. Suffice it to say that the data that I have looked at from the United Kingdom, where we have not embarked on a children’s vaccination programme but are about to, is that 60% of those who are double-vaccinated do not become infected with the delta variant, which is the dominant variant at the moment, and therefore cannot transmit and infect others; 40% can.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green)
The Minister mentioned the booster programme. Will he publish all the scientific evidence on which any wider booster plan is based? Will he consider the message that a population-wide booster programme might risk sending to other countries: the sense that everyone has to do it? We know that supplies of the vaccine are not limitless, so that could be an absolute disaster for countries in Africa, for example, where only 2% of people are fully vaccinated. Will he consider prioritising vaccines that are within their shelf life, for example, and giving them to COVAX? As he and others have said many times, none of us is safe until we all are.
Just as we published the JCVI’s interim advice on 30 June, we will absolutely do the same with the final advice. We have now delivered more than 9 million doses, through COVAX or bilaterally, out of the 100 million that we planned to deliver. We went further when we received a request from our Australian colleagues: we delivered 4 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine that they needed immediately, and we can take that back when we think we need it for our booster programme. The hon. Lady quite rightly highlights the issue of vaccinating with the rest of the world, which is an important part of our work with the vaccines taskforce.
I reassure the House and families listening at home that, as far as the interim advice or any final advice allows, I am confident that we will have vaccines available to boost all those whom the JCVI recommends we should boost.
Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con)
I am deeply uncomfortable with this decision. I think that when the JCVI made a decision on the application of the vaccine on clinical grounds it was in the right place—but the Government now have the answer that they want from the experts, so we are where we are.
Parents like me and our constituents will have many, many questions asked of them by their children, probably at bedtime. What will be their route for answering those questions? Where will they get the information? Just saying that the MHRA is the best regulator in the world will not cut it with my daughter. Will people be able to have conversations with their family doctor? At the moment—let’s face it—that is quite challenging. Can the Minister guarantee that we will be able to ring up and have a real-life conversation, not with an answerphone but with our family doctor, to ask questions about the very, very big move announced today?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question, but I would just slightly push back. He said that the Government have the answer that we want; that is actually incorrect, because I can tell him that the Government made it very clear that the JCVI and the chief medical officers had to base their decision on the work that they do, unimpeded and unencumbered in any way, and they have made that decision today. I can reassure him that the information provided through the school-age vaccination programme infrastructure will be made available both online and as hard copy—in leaflets—so that parents have all the information that they need, as well as the ability to consent; and, of course, that information will also be available to the children.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
I heard the Minister’s earlier answer about assistance for schools with ventilators and air purification. The time to roll that out would have been during the summer holidays, in preparation for the return to school. Yet again, we seem to be way behind the pace of what is going on. May I urge the Minister to talk to his colleague the Minister for School Standards, the right hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), who is sitting next to him, to get some urgency into the assistance for schools with this issue?
I think it worth reminding the House that ventilation guidance has been there from the very beginning for schools and school leavers to implement, but the roll-out is happening as we speak. Our colleagues in the Department for Education are working right now to get those pieces of equipment into schools as quickly as possible.
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con)
I have great respect for my hon. Friend as the vaccines Minister, but I find what he has announced this evening deeply troubling. I think it will pit parents against parents and parents against teachers, with a poor child stuck in the middle wondering what to do. There will be very little benefit to the child, and there is a lack of long-term data on the potential harm. However, what concerns me above all is that the Gillick doctrine of treating children without parental consent will become the norm for a range of medical procedures.
Let me, again, slightly push back on that. It is not teachers who are being asked to do this; it is our clinicians, who are well trained and incredibly capable because they do the same thing year in, year out for the purpose of school-age vaccination programmes. They will be offering the vaccines, and ensuring that parents have enough time to read the information and then give their consent before a vaccination takes place.
This is very much not about a situation involving division. I think—I hope—my hon. Friend agrees that throughout the vaccine deployment programme that we began in earnest back on 8 December last year with Pfizer-BioNTech and continued on 4 January with the AstraZeneca vaccine, we have endeavoured never to stigmatise anyone and to provide as much information and transparency as possible, which has led to the highest level of vaccine positivity in the world. I believe that according to the Office for National Statistics data on vaccine positivity in the UK, more than 90% of adults have said that they are very likely to take the vaccine, or have already taken it.
Kate Osborne (Jarrow) (Lab)
Many children will be anxious and worried on hearing the news that they will be receiving a vaccination, and I share the concern expressed about that by a number of Members this evening. How will the Minister be working with schools and teachers to ensure that children are informed about the vaccine in an age-appropriate and sensitive way?
It is important to remember that the clinicians who deliver the school-age vaccination programme around the country are very well equipped to deliver information about these vaccines, as they do in respect of others. The information will of course be made available to parents, and, as I have said, the consent procedure will be followed very closely. The infrastructure is not new; it is not something novel about which we might have to hesitate and worry. It is already there, and it is well able to deliver this programme.
Mr Marcus Fysh (Yeovil) (Con)
There is a great danger in politics that we sometimes make decisions while looking in the rear-view mirror rather than at what is truly the current picture. I have grave concerns about this policy and the fact that the chief medical officers have made their decision on the basis of the educational impact rather than the health of the children at clinical level. I disapprove of this decision incredibly strongly, and I wonder what we can we do to ensure that this kind of thing does not happen again, because I firmly believe that this is a very dark day for our country. Is it going to end with vaccinating five-year-olds when there is no clinical need? This is not about teachers or education. The virus is endemic now; there is not a pandemic any more. We have to get real, and I hope that the Government will reconsider.
I remind the House that the chief medical officers looked at the mental health impact on children before making their decision today. That was an important aspect of their deliberations, and as I have said, the JCVI was in the room as well as the royal colleges. It is also important to remind the House that vaccination will be voluntary, and that no parent or child should be stigmatised in any way. As with our vaccination programme, this is about making all the information available and letting people make their mind up as to whether they want their child to be vaccinated.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
Can the Minister confirm that, as with all medical decisions for under 16-year-olds, the decision will always lie with the parent or the person with parental responsibility, and not with the child? Will the Minister state clearly for all to hear that this Government will continue to embrace autonomy and not enforce mandatory vaccination at any time, as has been done in communist regimes to the detriment of freedom and democracy?
I remind the hon. Gentleman of the answers I gave earlier on consent. Parental consent will be sought, and the school-age vaccination programme is very well equipped to do that. The consent process is being handled by each school in its usual way and will provide sufficient time for parents to provide their consent. Children aged 12 to 15 will also be provided with information, usually in the form of a leaflet, for their own use and to share and discuss with their parents. The consent of the parent, guardian or carer will be sought by the school. In the rare circumstances in which a parent withholds consent but the child wants to be vaccinated, the child has to be deemed competent by the clinicians after consultation between the child and the parent. If that consultation is unsuccessful, the child has to be deemed to be Gillick competent. That has been the law of the land for other vaccination programmes, and in those circumstances the vaccination would proceed.
Richard Fuller (North East Bedfordshire) (Con)
My hon. Friend has again cited Gillick competence as a reason why parental consent can be overridden, but many people will think that this situation is very different from the fundamental basis of the Gillick competence. This is a widespread programme with all the issues of pressure and peer pressure that may arise from it, and we have had only a few months to understand the implications of this vaccine for people’s health. Also, the Minister himself has said that there is not much evidence on the long-term implications. Can he advise the House what legal assessment he has undertaken to support the Gillick competence in this case?
The Government have taken copious legal advice on this issue. I remind the House that on the rare occasions when there is a difference of opinion and a parent withholds consent when their child wants to be vaccinated, the clinician will bring together in consultation the child and the parents to try to reach consensus before they move on to the question of Gillick competence.
Greg Smith (Buckingham) (Con)
Following the answer that my hon. Friend the Minister gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) earlier, could he outline the concrete steps that the Government will be taking, particularly within educational settings but also in wider society, to guarantee that no unvaccinated child will be treated any differently from a vaccinated one?
There will be no question of discriminating in any way between vaccinated and unvaccinated children. Vaccinations are voluntary and will remain so.
Chris Green (Bolton West) (Con)
My hon. Friend acknowledges there is a small hazard with the vaccine programme, which is why there is one jab for these younger children. Will he confirm that all families will have access to their trusted family GP to get advice and understanding on the hazards before they are expected to make a decision on this important matter?
The best way for parents and families to make that decision is through the tried and tested process of the school age vaccination programme, and through schools sharing information and having a consent form that parents have to sign and return before the vaccination programme is scheduled.
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton)
I thank the Minister for his statement.