'Medical, not political': Whitty's case for 12-15 jabs

Chris Whitty and Jonathan Van-Tam set out the case for the school Covid jab rollout under questioning from MPs

Amy Gibbons and Catherine Lough

Chris Whitty today stated the case for Covid vaccine rollout in schools

Today chief medical officer Chris Whitty and deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam appeared before MPs to explain the case for rolling out Covid vaccines for students aged 12 to 15 across schools in England.

From explaining how the vaccination programme will reduce disruption to students' education this winter to the role of schools in the programme, here are the key insights school leaders need to know about from their appearance in front of the Commons Education Select Committee:

News: Lost school days could hit 12m without Covid vaccines, says Whitty

Related: Covid vaccine approved for 12- to 15-year-olds

More on Covid vaccines for young people:

The case for rolling out the Covid vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds 

1. Covid infection of school pupils is 'inevitable' not 'theoretical'

Professor Van-Tam told MPs that because the Delta variant of Covid is about 60 per cent more infectious than the Alpha variant, "we are not looking at a theoretical risk of children 12 to 17 becoming infected [with Covid] – I think it is really quite inevitable that they will be so at some point".

"The point of infection is...it is not of their choosing and may be at a point in their educational careers – thinking particularly of GCSEs and A levels – when it is extremely inconvenient to be laid low, albeit for a short number of days with a cough, fever and respiratory symptoms," he added.

Professor Whitty said that vaccination of students in this age range was "not a silver bullet" but that it would help and that the Joint Committee on Vaccination (JCVI) and Immunisation felt that the benefits outweighed the risk for this group "by a small margin".

2. The numbers involved are small

The JCVI estimates that a million first vaccine doses of the jab for this age group would stop, on average, 87 hospitalisations, slightly over 15 paediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome cases and around two intensive care admissions, Professor Whitty said.

Set against this was the possibility of heart-related problems, which can happen both with infection and with vaccination, with an estimate of 3 to 17 cases, he said.

"The risk to children is small, and the risk of vaccination is small," he said. 

Committee chair Robert Halfon pointed out that the JCVI assessment was that any impact on transmission from vaccination could be small. Professor Van-Tam responded by explaining that "lower does not mean anything close to zero".

Mr Whitty said they have not said that there is low transmission amongst this age group – in fact, transmission is "substantial" and 12- to 15-year-olds have the highest rates of transmission currently.

3. Schools must 'engage with the vaccination programme'

Wei Shen Lim, chair of the JCVI Covid-19 sub-committee, told MPs that schools had to engage with the vaccination programme.

Mr Halfon asked how many school days would be lost from the vaccination rollout, as well as about the impact of days lost to side effects.

Professor Lim said this was considered but not quantified.

"The vaccine programme...requires school nurse-led programmes but also requires the school itself to engage, and that may mean taking over school halls, taking out children from classes in order to be vaccinated.

"We know that with the Covid-19 vaccine, it's not like the flu vaccine – it has to be given as an injection...and there is a 15-minute wait after being injected, so all of those have to be considered when thinking about how to deliver a school-based programme," he said.

4. Up to 12 million school days lost if vaccines don't go ahead

Professor Whitty told MPs that if 12- to 15-year-olds are not vaccinated against Covid-19 the upper limit of time in school lost could be over 12 million days in the event of a "significant winter surge".

"We have had modelling done as part of this process and the range they came to was from the most benign situation, which I think is actually very improbable, of 110,000 days of schooling lost compared to if there's no vaccination, up to a higher end, which is not the absolute top of the range, of 12 million days of schooling lost if we would have a significant surge over winter," he said.

"Our view is firmly that people who have an infection are likely to be off school for longer than people who have a vaccination, on average," he added.

5. Pupils who do not get the vaccine will not be stigmatised

Mr Halfon asked about pupils' right to confidentiality and whether there would be a guarantee that "there won't be any kind of vaccine favouritism" or stigma for pupils who choose not to go ahead.

Professor Whitty said "no one should be stigmatised in either direction".

Camilla Kingdon, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "We've been very clear from a Royal College perspective that whatever choice a child makes or whatever choice a family makes, there should be no judgement attached to it."

She added that students who are not vaccinated should be able to participate fully in activities.

6. The decision was 'medical, not political'

Professor Whitty said wider societal considerations were not part of the decision to offer the vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds at all.

He said they only considered factors "that were directly or indirectly beneficial or disbeneficial [sic] or problematic to children 12 to 15".

Professor Van-Tam added that in the discussions with medical professionals leading up to the decision, there was a "very clear and deliberate suppression" of considerations of the effect on other age groups.

Professor Whitty added that he could "categorically" state that the decision was medical, not political, in response to a question from Dr Caroline Johnson, Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham.

"Our professional advice is completely medical," he said.

7. How will vaccination impact on pupils' mental health?

Dr Johnson said that among the reasons given for vaccination were the mental health benefits that come from knowing "you are protected from this deadly virus".

She asked why students need to be reassured regarding something that is so unlikely to harm them. 

Professor Whitty said his advice did not completely align with what ministers might say, and that his advice had pointed to the physical benefits of vaccination. 

He said "mental health is one element" of the advice and that this was not one of the reasons behind supporting the vaccination programme but the "simplification of a much wider point".

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Amy Gibbons and Catherine Lough

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