Expand vaccine rollout among young children to walk-in centres, government urged

Expand vaccine rollout among young children to walk-in centres, government urged
Teachers across England say their schools have yet to even begin rollout

Children should be vaccinated against Covid-19 at pharmacies and walk-in clinics – rather than just schools – to accelerate England’s “incredibly slow” rollout among 12 to 15-year-olds, the government has been told.

Around one in 10 of this cohort had received a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine by Wednesday, compared to 30 per cent of their peers in Scotland, where children can get jabbed both in and outside of school.

The figures suggest the government is unlikely to reach its target of vaccinating all young children by half-term, with logistical complications in storing, preparing and administering vaccine doses within schools thought to be partly responsible for the slow progress of the rollout.

Amid widespread classroom disruption – hundreds of thousands of children have been forced into Covid-related absences in recent weeks – Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said the government “must explain why this programme is running at a snail’s pace”.

“On current trends it will take months for all adolescents to be jabbed,” he said, adding that the rollout needs to “start harnessing community pharmacy and vaccination centres to drive up vaccination rates.”

In a statement to the Commons last month, the then vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi told MPs that the rollout for young children would make use of “the rest of the Covid vaccine infrastructure” if schools were struggling to provide the service.

Yet teachers from across England have told The Independent that they have not even begun their rollouts, or been given a starting date by their local NHS immunisation team.

“We haven’t heard a thing about vaccinations of our pupils,” said Kieran McLaughlin, headteacher at Durham Cathedral Schools Foundation. In Sheffield, Wales High School is “not scheduled to receive the vaccination team until the last week of this half term,” said principal Pepe Diiasio.

Logistical complications have hindered the rollout of jabs in school, which was first launched on 20 September.

It’s understood that Virgin Care, a private provider which is responsible for running immunisation programmes in hundreds of schools across south-west England, has encountered difficulties with its services.

The Independent has been told that the scale of work involved in preparing supplies, drawing the correct amount of dosage from the vials and then injecting the shot has strained some teams in Bath and North East Somerset, which are used to administering the flu nasal spray vaccine instead.

A senior NHS source admitted that the Covid rollout “is different to the flu schools programme,” adding that “you have to draw it out differently, you have to wait for longer afterwards, [and] there’s a consent process you have to go through with families.”

The latest figures from UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) suggest that, up to 3 October, just 94,000 children aged 12 to 15 had been vaccinated under the school programme. According to its own data, NHS England claims this figure stands at more than 180,000.

In contrast to its neighbour, Scotland has been offering jabs to this age cohort via community clinics, allowing children to get vaccinated where and when they want. On 20 September, it had vaccinated 5.4 per cent of its 12-to-15-year-olds. More than two weeks later, this had risen to 29.6 per cent.

Mina Fazel, an associate professor in child and adolescent psychiatry, said it “makes sense” to give schoolchildren in England more options. “If a child is initially hesitant and doesn’t come forward for an appointment, but then changes their mind two weeks later, they should be able to go and get their vaccine elsewhere,” she said.

“Maybe they’d be more comfortable being vaccinated outside of school in the first place. It makes sense to broaden out the options and offer the vaccine elsewhere.”

Professor Christina Pagel, the director of the Clinical Operational Research Unit at University College London, said walk-in clinics that are open after schools and at weekends should be made available.

“I think we should let kids get safely vaccinated wherever it’s possible,” she said. “I don’t know what the legal issues are but clearly Scotland have solved them.

“We’ve been incredibly slow to roll out the vaccines. People just don’t have access here. This, along with the delay in approving them in the first place, has come at a cost.”

In the week to 2 October, an estimated one in 15 children of secondary school age in England had Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – the highest rate for any age group reported during the pandemic.

Yet children appear very willing to get vaccinated. A survey published by the ONS on Friday showed that around 70 per cent of adults in Great Britain with a child aged 12 to 15 in their household believe they are very or fairly likely to get the jab.

Professor Fazel said that any lingering hesitancy among children will fade away as more come forward to receive their jab, persuading others to follow suit.

“What we know from the main rollout, as adults started to get vaccinated, the hesitancy reduced,” she said. “People were able to see the vaccines were safe, they knew others getting it, so their concerns were alleviated. My hunch is that the same process will happen with young children.”

A spokesperson for the NHS said: “In just two weeks hundreds of schools have already held vaccination clinics, with almost 180,000 children getting important protection from the virus.

“As the rollout continues over the next few weeks, local providers will continue to contact schools and work with parents to agree consent so that they can organise a visit.”