Skip to main content

Covid-19: Vaccinations for School Pupils

Volume 817: debated on Monday 17 January 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress they have made on delivering vaccinations for Covid-19 to school pupils since the Christmas holidays.

The Covid-19 vaccination programme continues rapidly, with nearly 52% of 12 to 15 year-olds vaccinated as of 15 January 2022. We vaccinated over 372,000 12 to 15 year-olds in England between 17 December 2021 and 15 January 2022—that is nearly 400,000 in a month, which included the Christmas break. Vaccinations for children aged 12 to 15 can be booked in out-of-school settings through the national booking service, alongside the ongoing school-based offer. We currently have 314 sites offering appointments that can be booked via the national booking service.

I thank the Minister for that very full response but the figures he has quoted are at odds with those issued just last week by the Department for Education on the vaccination of 12 to 17 year-olds. The number of pupils absent from school with a confirmed contraction of coronavirus was up by nearly 50% over the figure for December. It cannot be a coincidence that only 40% of 12 to 17 year- olds, in the DfE’s own figures, have been vaccinated. This shows, whether it is the Department of Health or the Department for Education, that the Government have really failed to get a grip on the measures necessary to keep children learning—whether it is the supply of testing kits or classroom ventilation. I ask the Minister: what urgent action will the Government take to increase the level of vaccination among school pupils?

I think the noble Lord is being slightly unfair in the sentiment of his question. We have to remember that, when it came to vaccinating children, there was a huge debate around, first, whether it was ethical to do so and, secondly, whether the vaccines used for adults were effective in children. We could not really do any of that until we had sufficient data. It would have been irresponsible just to have pushed ahead without the data. Once we got the data, we started the vaccination programme for 16 and 17 year-olds and then for 12 to 15 year-olds, and we are pushing through as much as possible. Parents can book for their children on a national booking service. We expect many more parents to do so.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, has indicated her wish to speak virtually, and I think this is a convenient point for me to call her.

My Lords, many parents are still saying that they have not heard when their clinically extremely vulnerable five to 11 year-olds will get their vaccinations, despite the JCVI saying that they should. Last week’s update to the GP green book now includes severely CEV children as eligible for the third primary dose, which is progress. However, there is no news for CEV young children not classed as severe, so can the Minister please say what he will do to ensure that GPs will call all these children for their vaccinations as soon as possible?

As the noble Baroness says, the JCVI advised on 22 December that children aged five to 11 in a clinical risk group, or who are a household contact of someone who is immunosuppressed, should be vaccinated. GPs and hospital consultants are now urgently identifying the children eligible, and we expect rollout to have started by the end of this month, with children and parents starting to be called up for appointments by the NHS locally. The message here is that there is no need for parents to contact the NHS; the NHS will make contact with the parents or carers of those eligible. Just to further reassure parents, we will be using a paediatric Pfizer vaccine authorised by the MHRA for use in this age group.

My Lords, given that it is safest to administer the vaccinations in a school setting, and unlikely that this round of vaccinations is the last one, has the Minister given any consideration to expanding the specialist community health nurses, commonly known as school nurses? Their numbers have been decreasing over the last 10 years. They could play a role in the future administration of vaccines in school settings.

I recall well being sent to the school nurse—sometimes we have fond memories, and sometimes less fond memories, of being sent to the school nurse. The noble Baroness makes a really important point. I will make inquiries and get back to her.

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister update the House on what actions the Government have taken to protect school pupils and teaching staff from the reckless behaviour and damaging misinformation being propagated by anti-vax protesters?

My noble friend raises a very important point, which I know a number of other noble Lords have also raised. In a free society, we have to get the balance right between freedom of speech and ensuring that people have a right to say even those things with which we may disagree fundamentally, while ensuring that misinformation is not spread. The department has now provided information and guidance to schools on how to handle any misinformation, and who to contact if there are protests which step beyond the line of acceptability and contravene the law. The police now have comprehensive power to deal with the activities, especially those which spread hate or deliberately raise tensions through violence or public disorder. I am sure many people will be aware of the attacks on vaccination centres in Truro in October and in north Wales and at the Bromley Civic Centre earlier this month. That was going way too far on freedom of speech, and we want to make sure that we deal with the people who take part in these acts.

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the World Health Organization that the vaccination of children in the wealthy world should not be at the expense of the vaccination of health workers and vulnerable adults in the developing world? If so, what more can the UK do to ensure that the developing world has access to vaccines and the capacity to manufacture them?

I once again pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Boateng, for raising this issue and for the number of times he has raised similar issues about the developing world over the years. Since I became a junior Minister of Health, I have been involved in many meetings with the G7 and G20, and in bilateral meetings with other Health Ministers. This item always comes up on the agenda and is something that the British Government have pushed. We are leading donors to the international COVAX programme and are working across the world, with other countries and with manufacturers, to make sure that we get the vaccines to those who really need them. While we here in this country complain about third and fourth doses, for example, there are still many people in many countries who have not even had their first vaccine. In the longer term, that is not right for anyone.

My Lords, would the Minister give us a little bit more of an insight into the general policy for vaccination of children at schools? Although we have problems here, we have a history of people resisting and giving bad information. Is there a coherent strategy that will come out for school-age vaccination that we can refer back to as a model for the future?

One of the important things we all have to learn, from what we have been through and are still going through, are lessons for the future—not only for future Covid vaccines there may need to be but for all vaccination programmes and, perhaps, future pandemics. One of the really important things about this is making sure we get the right information. We are working with schools to make sure teachers and parents have the right information and also know the risks. Many people will know that, over the weekend, 16 and 17-year-olds were called for their booster if there was a sufficient space since their last dose, and we are now looking at how we vaccinate 12 to 15 year- olds. We are looking in more detail at whether it is safe for five to 11-year-olds, but at the moment the advice is not there.

My Lords, as my noble friend has said, this country is behind some other countries in rolling out vaccinations to five to 11 year-olds. He will also be aware that the extent of Covid in that age group is a major source of infection for parents and, therefore, society as a whole. Have the Government taken account, or will they take account, of the wider social and economic benefits of vaccinating that age group and weigh them up alongside the medical evidence?

The JCVI will continue to look at the new data as it emerges and recommend whether we boost 12 to 15 year-olds. But when we look at the vaccination strategy, we look not only at the tackling of the specific coronavirus or variant but also at the wider implications. For example, many noble Lords have spoken eloquently about the unintended consequences for mental health issues of lockdown. Beyond that, we have to look at societal and social issues and the way people, businesses, charities, et cetera are affected in doing their work. We always make sure we take a balanced approach, looking at the science, the wider medical issues and the unintended consequences.

My Lords, the House is united on the importance of children’s education continuing, but it is the lack of vaccinations not just among children but among the teaching workforce that may interrupt their education. Do the Government have any estimate of the proportion of the teaching workforce that has not yet been vaccinated or is off work for Covid-related reasons?

The noble Viscount raises an important point. As we are expecting our children to be vaccinated, it is important that teachers are also vaccinated. It is one of the reasons we are looking at VCOD—vaccination as a condition of deployment—in the health service. In answer to the noble Viscount’s specific question, I am afraid I do not have the information with me, but I will try to speak to the Department for Education and write to him.