[Relevant documents: e-petition 586017, Do not vaccinate children against COVID-19 until Phase 3 trials are complete, e-petition 594272, Recall Parliament to debate vaccination of children before this is rolled out, and e-petition 589254, Offer the Covid-19 vaccine to under 18s.]
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking. This is line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the Chamber.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the vaccination of children against covid-19.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this important debate, and draw Members’ attention to the three e-petitions that relate to this topic, which have amassed more than 100,000 signatures between them.
Vaccination has transformed public health over the last two centuries. As a science teacher, I remember teaching students about the amazing work of Edward Jenner, who famously developed the smallpox inoculation. Two hundred and fifty years later, vaccinations have again ridden to our rescue with the rapid development and roll-out of covid vaccines across the UK. The phenomenal success of the vaccination programme can be seen clearly in the data. Of the 51,000 covid-related deaths from January to July this year, 76% were of unvaccinated people, and a further 14% had received only a single dose. Just 59 deaths—0.1%—were of double-vaccinated adults with no other risk factors, and 92% of adults now have covid antibodies.
Those figures are a ringing endorsement of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s strategy to recommend vaccination based on the medical benefits and risks to the individuals concerned. The Government have repeatedly defended both this strategy and the independence of the JCVI, and resisted calls to prioritise the vaccination of teachers or police officers over those at higher risk of serious illness. That was the right approach, and the UK has led the world in falling rates of deaths and hospitalisations.
It was therefore surprising, to say the least, when the Government put political pressure on the JCVI to quickly reach a decision about the vaccination of children. On 3 September 2021, the JCVI announced that it was unable to recommend the mass vaccination of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds. The reason was that, although there are marginal health benefits of covid vaccination to children based on the known risks of the vaccine, there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms, such as the long-term effects of myocarditis.
Paediatrician and JCVI member Adam Finn wrote in The Sunday Times that a high proportion of myocarditis patients showed
“significant changes of the heart. It is perfectly possible that these changes will resolve completely over time. But it is also possible that they may evolve into longer-term changes.
Until three to six months have passed, this remains uncertain, as does what impact on health any persistent changes may have.”
According to the JCVI, for every 1 million healthy children vaccinated, two intensive care unit admissions will be prevented, and three to 17 cases of myocarditis caused. With two doses, that rises to between 15 and 51 cases—finely balanced, indeed.
There is no rush to roll out the vaccine to children. We know that children are not at risk from covid; teachers are no more at risk than the rest of the population; the vast majority of vulnerable adults have been vaccinated; over half of children already have antibodies; and there is no evidence that schools drive transmission.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) is making an excellent speech, and she is quite right that the Government’s vaccination roll-out programme has been very positive. However, does she share my concerns about the message it sends out regarding parental authority if children as young as 12 are allowed to challenge their parents’ decision regarding their vaccination?
I agree with my hon. Friend: there are some very difficult issues around parental consent and the vaccine, and whether any child can know enough about the potential benefits and risks. This is going to be a very difficult question for schools, health authorities and parents. I will say more about that later on.
The advice being given out on consent forms states that you get to see your family doctor. However, when I and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) challenged the former vaccines Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), on the ability of families to access their family doctor to get advice about vaccines, he could not and would not give an assurance that families could have that advice. Is not such access necessary, especially if the Government are stating on the vaccine form that you do have that access?
Order. Before I call Miriam to continue, Members ought to realise that when they say “you” they are referring to the Chair. Can we please try to get the formalities right? I know that it is less important on Zoom, but we are now back.
My hon. Friend is right. It is widely known that access to GPs is challenging at the moment, and that presents challenges in this situation. It is widely understood that if a child can consent, contrary to parental consent, that is not a tick-box exercise; it is a matter for a medical professional to assess whether the child is competent to consent. If there are problems accessing GPs, there are clear issues here.
There is no rush to roll out the vaccine, and there is no evidence that schools drive transmission. Indeed, recorded covid cases are now at their lowest level since June, despite schools having been open for two weeks. It is also unlikely that vaccinating children will have a major impact on infection rates in the population as a whole, with the JCVI saying that
“the committee is of the view that any impact on transmission may be relatively small, given the lower effectiveness of the vaccine against infection with the Delta variant.”
However, instead of accepting the JCVI’s assessment and waiting for more evidence to emerge, the Government asked the chief medical officer urgently to review the decision based on the wider benefits to children, including from education. Last week, the CMO announced that he would recommend child vaccinations on the basis of these wider benefits.
That decision is a marked departure from the principle of vaccinating people for their own medical benefit, because those wider issues—educational disruption and concerns around mental health—are the consequences of policy decisions and are not scientific inevitabilities. Children in the UK have already missed more education than children in almost any other country in Europe, despite comparable death rates. Since January 2020, British children have lost on average 44% of school days to lockdown and isolation. That is not a consequence of covid infections in children, but rather a result of policy decisions to close schools and isolate healthy children.
According to the Government’s modelling, vaccinating children could save 41 days of schooling per 1,000 children between October and March. That equates to an average of just 15 minutes of education saved per child over this period—surely an insignificant amount, and negligible when we account for the time it takes to vaccinate and the subsequent days off school to recover from potential side effects. There is a much simpler way to stop harmful educational disruption, and that is to follow the advice of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and end the mass testing of asymptomatic children. This unevidenced and unethical policy is costing tens of millions of pounds a week—I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm the exact cost—and is continuing to disrupt education. Even the CMO acknowledges that a vaccination programme alone will not stop school closures. Perhaps the Minister could clarify how the Government intend to end educational disruption.
On the potential mental health benefits from reducing the fear of covid, it is not covid infection that is making children fearful; it is the uncertainty, frustration, loneliness and anxiety that they experience as a result of lockdowns and harmful messages such as, “Don’t kill granny.” Children need not fear catching covid, but they have every right to fear policy decisions that cause them significant harm, and sadly we cannot vaccinate against those.
Nonetheless, the decision has been made, and we have to be very clear that the risks to children, both from covid and from vaccines, are tiny. Concerns should now focus on making sure that the necessary safeguards are put in place as vaccination is rolled out. The previous vaccines Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), assured MPs that there will be no differential treatment of children in schools on the basis of their vaccination status. That is crucial, because any suggestion that unvaccinated young people may be denied education or be subjected to social disadvantage will inhibit the ability of both parents and children to make a free and objective decision. While I appreciate Ministers’ commitments, children already face discrimination in some schools over mask wearing and testing.
We must also make sure that travel rules that differentiate between vaccinated and unvaccinated children do not amount to coercion when parents are making a decision. Can the Minister say how we will ensure that there is no discrimination in practice as well as in theory?
Vaccination must be a free and informed decision. Choosing to have or not to have the vaccine are both perfectly reasonable and sensible decisions where children are concerned. We must ensure that correct and impartial information is communicated and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) said, that there is access to health professionals where necessary. Parental consent must also be respected. Much has been said on this subject, but the heart of the matter is that parental responsibility and authority are foundational to society.
I am optimistic that these protections can and will be put in place. None the less, the way that the decision to vaccinate healthy 12 to 15-year-olds has been made should give us pause for thought. For no other cohort have the Government questioned the JCVI’s advice. Why have we departed from this stance when it comes to children and looked for reasons other than direct medical benefit to press ahead? When there are concerns about the future health of our children, why have we not waited for more evidence to emerge? I fear that this situation, rather than being an isolated incident, epitomises a worrying attitude to children that has been evident since the start of the pandemic.
Throughout the past 18 months, “protect the vulnerable” has been our clarion call. We have rightly made significant efforts to protect elderly people and those who are particularly susceptible to covid, but children, who cannot speak out, do not own property, and have no legal agency, are also very vulnerable. Yet during the pandemic, we have asked this group of vulnerable people to make huge sacrifices to protect the rest of us. The harms of lockdown for our children are significant and, for many, will be irreversible: lost education, missed opportunities, abuse and horrific online harms. The number of children presenting in A&E with acute mental health conditions has risen by 50% since the start of the pandemic.
A climate of fear and uncertainty has robbed children of the structure, routine and security that they need to thrive and has placed on them a heavy emotional burden from inferring that they may be responsible for the deaths of those they love. We have pretended that online learning is somehow a substitute for being in schools, and closed our eyes to the consequences of social isolation for children and young people.
Of course, we should raise our children to take responsibility for their actions, but as adults we should always shoulder the greater burden. We have imposed absurd rules on our young people, right down to deciding whom they can play with at playtime and whether they are allowed to change for PE.
However, we have not seen that much action to urge adults to take responsibility for their own covid risk by, for example, losing weight or exercising—something that would have had a far greater impact on our rates of hospitalisation and death.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that the Government, in their approach to lockdown, are creating some of the problems they believe make the situation worse? Weight Watchers and other organisations have said that people coming to them have put on an average of about 6 to 8 lb in weight, and are therefore physically more vulnerable now to covid and other health problems than they were before the pandemic.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I am sure we can all empathise with those who have put on some lockdown pounds. A study, I think last week, showed that countries where over 50% of the adult population is overweight have experienced 10 times the death rate. A really effective way of reducing our risk in future would be to divert some of the money we are spending on testing asymptomatic people into drives against obesity and for exercise. That is an excellent point.
Even now, as adults, we are able to move freely from home to work, to Parliament and to the pub with no restrictions, yet children are still subject to asymptomatic testing, and many are being forced to wear masks in school and are missing out on important opportunities. We cannot expect our children to face greater restrictions than we ourselves are willing to bear. As a mother, I have despaired as I have watched the impact of those restrictions on my children and others. The stories that I have heard from constituents, particularly the parents of disabled children and those with additional needs, are horrifying. Millions of families have had to endure this. I pay tribute to UsforThem, which is working tirelessly to stand up for children and campaign for their lives to be allowed to return to normal.
What has saddened me most is the negative attitude to children that seems to have pervaded so much of our public discourse—especially the view that teenagers have behaved irresponsibly throughout the pandemic. That view is just not borne out by evidence. A study by King’s College London shows that, despite half of adults saying that young people have been selfish by ignoring restrictions, all age groups have been “remarkably compliant” and perceptions of selfishness are driven by “fake stereotypes”.
We seem to have forgotten what it means to be a child. We have forgotten that playing with other children, taking risks, feeling valued and enjoying physical contact with others are vital to healthy development. As a society, I fear that we are becoming a bit like Grandma from Roald Dahl’s “George’s Marvellous Medicine”:
“‘You know what’s the matter with you?’ the old woman said, staring at George over the rim of the teacup with those bright wicked little eyes. ‘You’re growing too fast. Boys who grow too fast become stupid and lazy.’
‘But I can’t help it if I’m growing fast, Grandma,’ George said.
‘Of course you can,’ she snapped. ‘Growing’s a nasty childish habit.’”
Things did not end well for Grandma, and things do not bode well for us if we fail to understand the nature and importance of childhood. Children are not disease spreaders, they are not a buffer for our healthcare system, and they are not an economic inconvenience. They are a blessing, they are our hope for the future, and their nurture and welfare should be our primary responsibility.
I am heartened by the care that has so far been taken by the JCVI, the chief medical officer and Ministers to reassure children and parents about the decision to vaccinate our young people, but looking forward we must recommit to putting the genuine and long-term interests of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens at the front and centre of policy making and prioritise their welfare as we recover from the pandemic.
It gives me deep and great pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing the debate.
Many of us, when we come to put a speech together, think of different ways and processes to do it. Some use the rule of three, and I want to refer today to three words that I hope my hon. Friend the Minister and her colleagues in government take notice of: “Do no harm.”
Regardless of the chief medical officer’s overruling of the JCVI, I would say that when it comes to our nation’s children and young people, the people in these roles should remember that their actions should do no harm. Our colleagues in government—whether newly appointed or not—should also be mindful, in respect of the electorate’s children, that they should do no harm. The new Minister will be aware of the strength of feeling displayed to her predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), and the Government in the recent urgent question on covid passports. It is, again, a fallacy that the direction that the Government wish to take will protect our children, especially as 50% to 70% of them are likely already to have contracted and survived covid-19, according to the Office for National Statistics. Are we really showing that we are doing no harm?
We are told that any vaccination programme would not negate potential future school closures, so what is the point? Where is the political backbone? Is the Government’s plan that any future upsurge in age 12-to-15 cases could be ascribed to an epsilon or a zeta variant, or perhaps an eta or a theta variant? Will anyone give an iota of credence to such an occurrence after what we have seen with hospital transference to care homes and the subsequent surge in cases in our older generation, and with the recent vaccinations and the delta variant that has emerged? We should be mindful as politicians on both sides of the House, and I note at this point that there are not even three Opposition representatives on the other side of the Chamber, although I do see that the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall), is in her place. We need to do no harm for myriad, if not a veritable plethora of, reasons.
I turn now to the so-called Gillick principle. As no trials that have been made public are definitive, I fail to see how any child below 16 can be fully informed and, on being fully informed, one would have to say that their teachers and headteachers cannot be either on the safety or otherwise of the vaccines, in particular in the light of the heart impacts on young males and the reported effects in more than 35,000 females of reproductive age reported in the UK national media this very last weekend. Can the chief medical officers and the JCVI, after their recent decision-making process, hold themselves to the maxim that they will do no harm?
Vaccine passports are not a first line of defence against a potential so-called winter wave of coronavirus, as Downing Street spokesmen are reported to have said. Our children of 12 to 15, like their older siblings and other under-25s who frequent nightclubs, bars and restaurants, are not to be used as a second line of defence either. I urge the Minister and her colleagues in Government to remember to do no harm. There is no medium or long-term study data. I admire Chris Whitty and his colleagues for many things that they have done in the past 18 months. However, citing educational disruption, or the fear of more of it, as a justification for child vaccination against JCVI advice seems a little desperate, as far as I am concerned.
We were told that all those at risk needed to be vaccinated. They have been. Many others have caught and survived covid-19. What real justification is there now to vaccinate those under 40 at all, some would ask? We have had millions of various vaccinations. How many of those under 40 without any underlying health issues have died or been hospitalised purely because of covid-19? So why are our children still taking tests after a whole summer of not doing so, as has been referred to? Is it perhaps because there are thousands, if not millions, of the tests sitting in warehouses? What sort of reason is that for imposing this sort of regime on them?
Are we ensuring that we are doing no harm? Are the zealots in the civil service, the NHS and Government going to stigmatise and demonise any parent who expresses concern about ensuring vaccination of our young children through fear and perhaps even lies, and about taking a vaccine that has had no long-term testing and does not stop someone getting the virus or passing it on? “Do no harm” starts to have a very hollow ring.
If covid risk for young people is much lower, while with vaccination there are heart risks for males—that is a real concern—and reproductive females are suffering side-effects, how does the Minister square that circle that we should do no harm to the young of the UK? That next generation will be paying for this Government’s and the Minister’s decisions for many, many years and, I fear, perhaps in more ways than one.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on bringing forward the debate. We had a discussion beforehand about her ideas for the thrust of the debate, and I have to say that my ideas concur with hers. Much of what I will say has been put forward already.
It is good to see the Minister in her place. I wish her well in her new role. I look forward to working with her on issues that we will find we have an interest in. I am also pleased to see the shadow Minister in her place. She and I have many things in common, and one is Leicester City football club. We are perhaps not doing as well at the moment as we could do, but we look forward to better days in the future.
My boys are grown up and I am now at the grandparent stage. I do not have as much of a role to play in the childminding as my wife does, but I understand that this morning she started childminding at 5 am, which is an early slot, because the two boys’ parents are working, one from 5 am and the other coming back at 8 am. I know that Government have always been of the opinion that families are core and central to society, and that is what I want to see as well.
Of my grandchildren, the two biggest girls have isolated on two or three occasions. I am glad to say that they have never had covid, but none the less that is the system: if one child in the class takes it, the whole class is out. I concur with the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that we need a better system so that we do not necessarily have to go to those lengths every time.
I am vaccinated, and very pleased to be so. I believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine, but I also believe in reasoned parental consent. I believe that parents have a right to determine the best course of action, in co-ordination with medical staff on best practice. I put questions about this to the former vaccines Minister, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), last week and the week before in the Chamber. I respect him greatly, because he is very good at his job and committed. However, I was not totally convinced by his answers. I say that respectfully because I was not sure that the final decision would always lie with the parents.
I am encouraged by the news this morning that 89.1% now have double jabs and 81.3% have single jabs. We are moving in the right direction, so there is good news on the vaccine front. The medical evidence is by no means empirical at this stage. There are strong suggestions that
“new scientific advice does not endorse universal vaccination of all children over 12 in the UK”.
If scientists are saying that, we cannot ignore them. They are saying:
“The latest advice recommends that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine should be offered to a wider number of children directly at risk from covid-19, and to children living with an immunosuppressed person. There is very good evidence that children who have covid-19 are much less likely to develop severe symptoms and much less likely to die from the disease than adults. While rare in children, serious outcomes from covid-19 have been studied in this group. The strongest risk factor is having some underlying health problems, including neurological and cardiac conditions or complex neuro-disability.”
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge referred to those with disabilities. Reuben, the son of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), came home from school 10 days ago. Out of his class of 28, 26 children had covid. They had to self-isolate because my hon. Friend has asthma, and his case is quite serious. While we have to do things, there must genuinely be a better way. It is not the Minister’s responsibility to respond for education, but I am keen to find out what discussions she has had with Education Ministers on this issue, and how we could better handle it. That is what I would like to see.
My parliamentary private secretary has two children. One comes home from school and has to isolate because someone in the class has got covid, though they have not. They potentially bring it in to the house. I cannot understand, and neither can she, why they cannot go back to school. They have to isolate from the classroom but can interact with the family, including a sister who is in a different class. We need to have a better way of looking at that.
In my opinion, some parents may decide, following medical advice, that the jab is the safer option. The starting point must be that it is a matter of opting in, not opting out. I have read some incredibly interesting data from Israel that suggests that immunity gained after recovering from a bout of covid-19 is more protective against the new delta variant than vaccine-induced immunity. Natural immunity was estimated to be about 13 times stronger than having two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Natural immunity should be key to how we deal with this.
Added to that are our own data that show that children do not tend to become seriously ill. To me that underlines the importance of the Government allowing parents to determine. In saying that, there must not be any pressure applied by schools, such as restricting after-school sports clubs without vaccination proof. A child needs a normal life. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge referred to the impact on children’s mental health. The figures for Northern Ireland show that the effect on mental health, even for children at primary school, is greater than ever. We need social interaction. That is why I am pleased to be back in Parliament and to have social interaction with people again, which is the way it should be. It is also important for children at school. The hon. Lady also referred to obesity, which it is important to put into perspective. The role of parents in physical health at school and home is critical.
Sometimes people go overboard on restrictions that are not always necessary. We need to be aware of how covid safety should be carried out while having a normal life and protecting children, yet making parental input central and critical. I will finish with this comment: I believe in the vaccine and am totally committed to what it has done. It has given us a leadership in the world through our vaccination programme, and I thank the Minister and the Government for their leadership.
I picked up on the hon. Gentleman’s comments earlier about being sociable and being back in this place, and I did not want him to sit down having made a speech without being intervened on, as he is probably one of the most social Members across the House. Well done.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Our friendship goes back to when our offices used to be across from each other on the same corridor, and I am very pleased to renew it again in this House.
I believe that we have seen a decline in covid due to the vaccine, and the benefits are clear to see. However, from a child’s perspective the tale is very different, and parental consent, hand in hand with medical guidance in specific cases, must be the way we move forward. I believe that is what we should be doing. I am pleased to have had the debate and I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge again for securing it. I look forward to other contributions, which I hope will endorse what we have all said.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who made so many important points. I also appreciate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for leading on the debate; I know many people right across the country are grateful for it, because this is an area of immense concern as their children are being vaccinated or not, as the case may be.
The country has gone through a difficult time over a long period. Who would have thought in March last year that we would be in this position now, debating whether 12-year-olds would be vaccinated to deal with this disease? At the beginning, there was very little certainty or scientific understanding of what we were facing. The scientific understanding has carried on apace; there has been a huge global effort to increase it, and on the medical side there has been a huge advance in how we treat people.
Covid is far less dangerous now than it was at the beginning, and we need to be clear about that, including when we look at the Government’s statistics on how deaths and other concerns are presented. To this day, they still show the overall death rate as including those deaths in the first and second waves. That makes us believe that we have not rolled out an effective vaccines programme and that doctors and people in hospitals are not far more effective at treating the disease itself. We are in a far better position, and that must be more clearly understood.
Initially, in January this year and December last year, the vaccine roll-out was pitched as protecting the most vulnerable: those who are old and those who have particular health challenges. Then, before we knew it, the ages were coming down and down. We got to age 18, and at the same time it was not a single vaccination, but a double vaccination that would give people the necessary protection. Now we are in the position of giving a booster vaccination to people in the near future. Initially it is being proposed for the over-50s, but will that come down as well?
The point I am making is that we have not been given any certainty over what the Government and their advisers deem to be success. It seems as though, because the system has not been given clarity about what success is, it carries on and on and the next group, the next group and the next group receive the vaccination. However, we know that in the first and second waves the connection between transmission, hospitalisation and death was strong. We know from Government data that, in the third wave, the connection between transmission, hospitalisation and death is fundamentally broken; it is nothing compared with what it was at the beginning. Our approach to covid therefore ought to reflect those facts.
I recall the pervasive disapproval that attached to my family when my children were at school and it became apparent that my wife was refusing to use the powerful chemical solution for the control of nits. When we come to schools being collectively vaccinated, the decision of some parents or children not to be vaccinated will undoubtedly be a matter of common knowledge—there is certainly the danger of that. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that it will be difficult to prevent that general disapproval and all that may flow from it from being attached to parents or children who have decided not to be vaccinated?
My right hon. Friend makes exactly the right point. In school settings, it will be incredibly difficult to do this, and it will be variable. It will depend on the culture of the school and the school leadership. Some schools will be open and objective, and will say, “We will respect you, the family, for the decisions you make on behalf of your family,” but I am pretty certain that other schools will have a very difficult and challenging atmosphere for those 12-year-old children and their families if they do not comply.
I think that is a very dangerous route for us to go down and will cause so much pressure. That leads on to an immensely important point. Traditionally in the United Kingdom, our approach to vaccinations has been one of non-compulsion. Our vaccination take-up across the board has been very high because people trust the vaccination programme and that these things, which we can take voluntarily, are there for our own good. We do not need coercion to take them; they are there for our good so we will take them. What repercussions will we face in years to come now that there is a toxification due to the imposition of these vaccines?
What, furthermore, do we see? We see that the first and second waves had a huge impact on us, but the third wave is far less impactful. All our vaccines are effective against all variants of concern. We see compulsory vaccination in the care sector, no doubt shortly to be rolled out into the national health service, and therefore after that to other sectors in society. We see the establishment of the idea of vaccine IDs and domestic ID cards. There is a pause at the moment in England, but those causes are being advanced in Scotland and Wales. In many ways, we can objectively say that we are almost through the worst of the pandemic, yet the more draconian or authoritarian measures are being introduced at this stage. It is perverse.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He makes a very good point about trust in vaccinations, because we have an outstanding system of child vaccinations in this country, with very high uptake and no compulsion at all. That is predicated on the fact that parents know that those vaccines are without doubt in their children’s best interests. Polio, measles and all those other diseases are child killers and life-altering. Even if the risks are low, they are considerably higher than the vaccine. Therefore, understanding and trust are vital. Does he agree that it is very important to have transparency around the concerns now so that parents make a free decision and it does not impact on the outstanding roll-out of other vaccines that are very much in our children’s best interest and vital for continued public health?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Confidence needs to be restored in the wider vaccine programme. There needs to be a renewal of focus, because vaccinations for infants have dipped—slightly, but they have dipped. For older children and teenagers, the wider vaccine programme has dipped more substantially, so we need a significant catch-up in our broader vaccine programme.
We will also see increased concerns as drug companies seek approval to get the age for covid vaccines reduced to five years old. We therefore see the potential for an undefined point at which we can declare our position a success. If we do not have a clear understanding of what success means, will Government advisers say, “We now have approval for drugs to be given to five-year-olds, and that is the next step”? That question is for my hon. Friend the vaccines Minister, whom I welcome to the Front Bench. Will she clarify a couple of points? We here, broader society and health professionals outside the scope of Government can understand the end point. Professor Whitty said that at a certain point we will be able to treat the coronavirus as we treat influenza. What are the objective criteria by which we and others can judge that?
I asked the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), about the transition point when we as a society understand that we have moved from a pandemic disease where we need restrictions and other lockdown measures, and when we move to an endemic disease where we treat coronavirus as we treat influenza and other diseases, many of which are incredibly dangerous to people who are vulnerable—influenza is very dangerous for vulnerable people. We need to know when coronavirus goes from pandemic to endemic. We need objective criteria, because when the previous vaccines Minister replied to me, I could define what he said as, “We come out of pandemic status tomorrow” or, “We come out in 10 years’ time.” I do not think that is good enough when schools and families need more certainty.
Thank you for chairing this debate, Dame Angela. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing a debate on this immensely important topic and for speaking so convincingly.
Despite what has been said, the JCVI’s recommendation on the mass vaccination of children aged 12 to 15 is clear. “The margin of benefit” in vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds is “too small” to support such a policy. That was the conclusion reached when the question was asked, as it should be in the case of medical decisions, about what would be in the best interests of our children’s health.
Throughout the pandemic we have continually been told of the importance of following the science. I warmly welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Maggie Throup) to her ministerial position, but will she explain why we are now disregarding the science and the experts who clearly said that it is not necessary nor advisable on the basis of the evidence we have for that cohort to receive a covid-19 vaccine? Given “fake news”, some people seize on any lack of clarity or inconsistency to be anti-vax, which I am not, and that is a real risk when the Government override trust, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) delineated so well.
If it is because of extraneous factors that have been mentioned in recent days, such as protecting children’s mental health and ensuring they miss no more school, it must be said that both of those problems have their root in Government decision making. School closures are a political choice. Testing regimes are at the bureaucratic insistence of the Department for Education. The fear that some children might have of dying from covid-19 has come from a created climate of fear, because the evidence shows that both children who are perfectly healthy and those who have underlying health conditions face a mortality rate from covid-19 of two in every 1 million. Children are therefore not at risk of death or serious illness from covid-19. In fact, most children are asymptomatic or experience a mild illness. Given that most vaccines do not prevent transmission and that those most at risk due to age or underlying health conditions have been double-vaccinated, this recommendation is not only unnecessary, but could be dangerous. We should be protecting our children and not taking unnecessary risks with their health in favour of some vague notion of perceived benefit to wider society.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that initially the Government’s perspective was that we need a double vaccination for both protection and longevity of protection, yet 12 to 15-year-olds will receive only one dose, giving them relatively short-term protection? That is not consistent with the general stated aims of the vaccine programme.
My hon. Friend very capably highlights yet another inconsistency. It is important to remember that any child who gets seriously ill or, heaven forbid, dies from a vaccine does so because of a policy decision and not a disease.
Turning to parental responsibility, many constituents who are parents have expressed their deep unease at the Government’s recommendation, and even more so that under the ill-advised Gillick principle children will be able to consent to taking the vaccine against their parents’ wishes. The Gillick principle has been cited as something that is set in stone and could never be changed, and as a sort of legal precedent as if this House, which exists to make law, could not override it, as many other things have been overridden apparently quite straightforwardly in the last couple of years.
The Gillick principle—it is unfortunate it is named after her given her background—means that children will be able to consent to taking the vaccine against their parents’ wishes. It has long been accepted in this country and in the thinking of my political background and heritage that children under the age of 18, and certainly under 16, should be the responsibility of their parents, that they should be guided and protected by them, and that parents, as adults, will make decisions in the best interests of their children. Only in exceptional circumstances should agents of the state interfere in that relationship and override a parent’s wish for their child.
I am deeply concerned by the increasing trend away from the Gillick principle. Just last week, we saw the High Court hand down a deeply concerning judgment that children under the age of 16 will be able to consent to taking puberty blockers without the need for parental permission. We are descending rapidly down a slippery slope. It is a mistake to allow children to circumvent parental control, especially when the long-term consequences of the vaccines are not yet clear. There has been limited research and data collected on the efficacy and safety of these vaccines for children.
I have been contacted by local teachers in my constituency of Northampton South who are receiving concerned emails from parents accusing schools of implementing this policy. I want it to be clear that this is a Government proposal and schools will have no liability in carrying out injections. I also want clarification from the Minister that vaccines will not be administered by school staff.
I am pretty sure I will not. I congratulate the Minister, who until last week was my favourite Whip and is now the vaccines Minister. It is a great honour to do that job, and I am sad we have to come up against this particular policy because across the board the vaccine programme has been remarkable. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) on securing the debate. The issue is agitating and concerning, and enormous numbers of people, including parents, schools and many others, feel it is a step too far.
I am a Conservative. I joined the Conservative party because of a belief in giving people freedom of choice, the ability to deliver and develop their own destiny, and the opportunity to live full, vibrant and fulfilling lives. I think this particular policy goes right against that, and I feel uncomfortable with it. It feels wrong, and I believe it is wrong to introduce this vaccination programme for children aged 12 to 15, considering all that has been said about consent this morning. Before I get started, may I just say that I feel privileged to be in this room where such great points and speeches have been made, because we care about families, children and how our schools are supported in a very difficult and unprecedented time?
Earlier in the year I went to visit St Clare medical centre in my constituency, which was delivering the vaccine programme with great fervour. It has an amazing system going on. In fact, with other primary care networks in my constituency, it was mentioned in dispatches for the incredible effort it put in to get the vaccine out to the most vulnerable people. My constituency was the fifth in the country in getting the most people vaccinated by the February half term.
I observed the logistical challenge and triumph of rolling out the vaccine programme and talked to the practice manager. She described why the additional workload was acceptable: a massive volunteer army was motivated and mobilised, there was an incredible collaboration of GPs, the NHS and all sorts of organisations that had got behind this, and there was organisation across the primary care networks. She said that all of that extra effort—the long weekends and the massive amount of work that went into it—was possible and worthwhile because it was part of the national effort. It really struck home that people right down at the end of the country, in the most beautiful part, who are often tucked away and not necessarily engaged in national efforts, were so enthusiastic and determined to make this work. West Cornwall primary care networks were mentioned by the Secretary of State at the time for their incredible effort in getting vaccines to people in such a quick and effective way.
During the roll-out of the vaccine programme, Ministers fiercely defended the decisions made by the JCVI. The JCVI determined the priority groups—who would get the vaccine and when—and Ministers refused to intervene. They were determined not to intervene, not even to prioritise teachers as schools opened in September last year. They refused to intervene to prioritise the police when some 10,000 policemen descended on my constituency in Cornwall for the G7. There was great concern about that, but Ministers refused to intervene to allow police officers of all ages to have the vaccine ahead of the priority groups set out by the JCVI. Why now, with the help of the chief medical officers, do the Government reject the advice of the JCVI? That advice states:
“The margin of benefit…is considered too small to support advice on a universal programme of vaccination of otherwise healthy 12 to 15-year-old children”.
It also says that
“any impact on transmission may be relatively small”.
In other words, schools would still be disrupted because the vaccine does not manage transmission. I, along with many others, recognise the wisdom of the JCVI’s advice JCVI in this area. We were surprised when, just weeks later, the Government and chief medical officer seemed to take a completely different course. I was relieved when the JCVI made its case and gave that very sound advice. Like many others, I was then disappointed and concerned that the Government seemed to go against it.
The reason for my concern is that the decision to override the JCVI advice will undermine confidence in the vaccine roll-out programme. Up until now, because of the way the JCVI has operated, the country has welcomed the approach, has supported it and had confidence in it. I wonder whether the Government are actually doing it a disservice by potentially undermining confidence in the roll-out. So far, the great strength of the vaccine roll-out is its voluntary nature, based on sound advice and a national united effort.
My fear is that the decision has been made for seemingly unsubstantiated reasons. There are gaping holes in the argument that it will minimise disruption of children’s education. My fear is that it risks turning a national effort into a tool to pressure children, undermine parents and drive an inadvertent wedge between families and schools. Under a new Secretary of State, the Government’s primary priority should be allowing schools to do what they do best: educating children. I ought to declare an interest as I have three children, who are in school at this very moment—or so I hope.
At the beginning of the year, I secured an Adjournment debate on the experience of schools. They have had a blooming rotten time, with changing advice and all sorts of things coming down from Government; they did not know if they were coming or going. What has really concerned schools, teachers and headteachers is that they have taken on a new role—trying to manage children’s health and parts of their welfare—that they never signed up for. It is not that they are unwilling, but that they do not have the time or resources, and they might even add the expertise, to take on those additional responsibilities when what they want is to educate children and give them the best start in life.
All Members’ constituency offices have supported schools in the bizarre work they have had to do to manage parents on different sides of different arguments when it comes to managing covid in schools. I have had parents who are furious with a school for insisting on face coverings in parts of the school, both before that was the official advice and since; I have also had parents furious with a school for saying children do not have to wear a face covering in the classroom. Those poor headteachers and staff have had to deal with that along with all the pressures of teaching children.
What do we do? We make their job a whole lot more difficult by putting schools at the centre of a decision that most of us in this room do not believe is robust or stands up to what scientists have said. We have asked them to take on the additional responsibility of vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds, and to manage the various pressures that come with it, when all they want to do—all they thought they were doing—is go back to school in September, catch up and give their children a happy, healthy and wonderful experience being educated. I really feel for our children.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to one school where there were different opinions between parents about their children. There are different opinions in schools, but it is important to have a policy that is uniform across all schools. Does he feel that when the Minister replies, she could mention any discussions with the Secretary of State for Education about having a uniform policy which applies to all schools? Then the schools would have one rule they could all adhere to.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, because I was going to come on to that. We are entering into a very difficult situation. We need to protect schools and enable them to do their job, not drive a wedge between parents and schools. At the same time, we want schools to be very clear about their responsibilities and how they can manage issues of coercion, peer pressure and so on. It is a tricky issue for the Minister to grapple with.
I would like the Minister to ensure and confirm three things. I imagine that it will make up the vast majority of her work over the next few weeks, now that the Government have made their decision. Obviously, many of us would rather they had ditched that decision and instead made sure that the vaccine got to people in developing countries who really need it. If we really care about keeping this country and the rest of the western world safe—if that is our priority—then supporting the vaccination of the whole world, instead of our children, is the answer. However, that is a separate issue that the vaccines Minister probably cannot address on her own.
In line with the intervention I have just received, can the Minister make it absolutely clear that parents have the information they need, that they understand their rights, and that they are very clear about schools’ role in providing the vaccine and supporting children to have the vaccine, if that is what parents wish for their children? Can we also ensure that the vaccine is given only when informed and voluntary consent is clearly given—when it is definitely there, free from peer pressure and coercion?
We are now asking schools to somehow play referee in a situation that should never be in their remit. The desire to get on top of covid and get things going again could lead to a situation where things go wrong and become difficult in the school environment.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way right at the end of his speech, as he was asking the Minister a few questions. Does he know or can the Minister refer in her remarks to the strength of any vaccination that might be given to children under the age of 16?
I will not even attempt to answer that, other than to say that it is interesting that it is a single dose as that raises the question of what happens next. Will there be boosters of a single dose in time or is this a curious attempt to somehow get the whole country vaccinated and then we will wonder what to do after Christmas? My hon. Friend raises a good point and I hope the Minister responds to it.
We must ensure that parents are clear about their rights and that they are supported to know what is right for their children. Can we ensure that the vaccine is never used and cannot be used as a condition of access to education for any children, including those in special schools or those in care? Whatever the situation, we must ensure that there is no opportunity for the vaccine to be a condition of education. We must not give up on that, although I do not think for a minute that that is the intention.
The JCVI has done a fantastic job leading the national roll-out of the vaccine and has made us one of the most successful countries in the world in relation to the vaccine. Can we allow it the freedom to monitor the vaccine roll-out for children as it goes forward and to continue to offer advice on it? If it then says that the benefit margins are too small, can the Government properly review the roll-out and be bold enough to stop it, if that is the advice that is given? We need to ensure that the public can continue completely to trust the advice and the vaccine programme as it is today.
In conclusion, when will asymptomatic testing come to an end? It is costing a fortune, it is bizarre to test healthy children and it is not right to continue to do that. How can we ensure that we do not just protect the UK public but those around the world? What is the next step? Our policy is to give one jab to 12 to 15-year-olds. What is the Government’s and scientists’ thinking about the next step in making sure that our children continue to go to school? Please can we get back to giving vaccines just because of the health of individuals and not to protect the school environment, the community or even, dare I say it, the economy?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dame Angela. I welcome this timely and important debate, which has been secured by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates).
My Labour and I colleagues strongly welcome the fact that children aged between 12 and 15 are now being offered their first dose of a covid vaccine, following advice from all four of the UK’s chief medical officers. That is something we have been calling for since June. It will have both direct and indirect health benefits for children, and it will help to keep them in school, which is vital after all the face-to-face learning they have missed out on and the impact that it could have on their long-term life chances. Vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds will also help their families and the wider community by helping to keep infection rates down.
The latest figures show that there were 36,000 new infections in the last 24 hours. There are 7,847 people in hospital with covid-19. The average number of daily deaths over the last week has risen to a tragic 142. In my own city of Leicester, rates remain highest among 11 to 16-year-olds, with a considerable increase over the last month, so there is not a moment to waste.
We have been calling on the Government since the start of the summer to press ahead with a vaccination programme for children. Back in June, the shadow Minister for Schools, my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), argued that if covid vaccinations for children were found to be safe, as the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency clearly says they are, they should be rolled out over the summer holidays, before the beginning of the new academic year, to help to keep disruption in schools to a minimum.
In July, the shadow Health Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), pressed the Health Secretary on why covid-19 vaccinations were being given to children in the United States, Canada, Israel, France, Austria, Spain and Hong Kong, but not here in the UK. I am sad to say that, at that stage, the Government failed to act. Although we are rightly proud of the amazing vaccination programme delivered by our NHS, the truth is that we are now being overtaken by other countries, and that is due in no small part to the vaccination of children.
France was one of the first to offer vaccines to children, back in June, and now 68% of children aged 12 to 18 have received a single dose. In Italy, the figure is 62% and in Spain 79%. Israel, the United States, Canada, Sweden, Poland and Switzerland have also raced ahead. While our Government spent months delaying on this vital issue, countries across the world acted, and they are now streets ahead of us in protecting children, their education and the wider community. It is vital that we catch up.
I thank the hon. Member for the important points that she is making. Does she believe that it is important to follow what other countries are doing, and to roll out the vaccine almost on the basis of an international competition, or is it more important to be safe? Does she not think that the fact that we were in advance of many other countries, and we broke the link between case rates and deaths early on, gives us more space to breathe and allows us to take longer to make finely balanced decisions about vaccinating children?
I am sure the hon. Lady is not suggesting that all those other countries have made decisions that are not based on the evidence, because to say so would be insulting to them. I believe that we should base our decisions on evidence and advice from the experts, and I will come on to say more about that. That is what has happened in other countries. I just wish we had done it earlier in this country.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right; I am not saying that other countries are not basing decisions on their own evidence. I am saying that the success of our programme was based on the JCVI’s advice and its particular method of offering vaccination based on individual medical benefit, which gave us an incredible advantage that could have allowed us to wait a further six or nine months to make this decision.
Thank you, Dame Angela. I will come back to this point, because several hon. Members have talked about what the JCVI recommended, and I hope I will be able to set out a little more information about what it actually said later in the debate. Before I go on to talk about the evidence—
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I want to make sure there is time for the Minister to respond and for the hon. Lady who secured this debate to speak again at the end. I want to make some important points about the evidence, but may I first say something about some deeply concerning and troubling incidents in my Leicester West constituency?
I am appalled that some of our headteachers have received threats via letter and on social media—including threats of legal action, and even death threats—accusing them of supposedly promoting illegal medical experimentation on children. That is disgraceful and completely unacceptable. As Jane Brown, the headteacher of New College in my constituency, says, we need to call this out. Schools are having a tough enough time as it is, without being bullied, too. I hope that when the Minister—I welcome her to her place—rises to speak, she will join me in condemning those threats and intimidation, and in once again making it clear that vaccination will be voluntary and no child will have the vaccine forced upon them. It is also vital to stress that although schools are the venue for the vaccination, the delivery of the programme will be done by the NHS and arrangements for consent are exactly the same as for all other vaccinations and medical procedures. I hope that the Minister will say what the Government are going to do to try to deal with the threats and intimidation, which I fear are growing.
I turn to why my Labour colleagues and I so strongly welcome the CMOs’ decision. As always, we are guided by the evidence and the advice from experts, which show that covid vaccines for children are safe and effective to use, with the benefits exceeding the risks on an individual basis. That is the view of the MHRA and the equivalent regulators in Europe, the USA and Canada. The JCVI agrees that the benefits of vaccinating 12 to 15-year-olds exceed the risks—in other words, that for people in this age group, it is better to be vaccinated than not.
In their decision to recommend the universal vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, the four CMOs took as read the JCVI and MHRA view that the benefits exceed the risks, and they then looked at the wider benefits. It is not true that the JCVI advice has been undermined, as I have heard several times in this debate. The JCVI says that
“it is not within its remit to incorporate in-depth considerations on wider societal impacts, including educational benefits. The government may wish to seek further views on the wider societal and educational impacts from the chief medical officers of the 4 nations, with representation from JCVI in these subsequent discussions.”
The JCVI recommended that wider societal impacts were looked at. Doing so is not undermining the JCVI’s decision; it is putting it into practice. The CMOs consulted with a wide range of organisations, including the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Psychiatrists, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, the Faculty of Public Health and many others.
In making their decision, the CMOs said that the most important issue for 12 to 15-year-olds was the impact on education, which is vital in itself and one of the most important drivers of public health and mental health. The CMOs note that the
“impact has been especially great in areas of relative deprivation which have been particularly badly affected by COVID-19”.
That is, in areas of the country precisely like those that I represent in Leicester West, which were in lockdown far longer than any other part of the country. Children have lost out on an average of 115 days of class learning. That could have a huge impact on their later life chances, not to mention the knock-on impact on their ability to fulfil their potential and earn, and all the impact that has on the wider economy.
The CMOs rightly say that missing out on schooling has health ramifications, as educational attainment is a key determinant of a person’s health throughout their life. It has an impact on their wider social mobility and their future likelihood of developing co-morbidities. It can affect the likelihood of obesity, smoking and alcoholism, and it can affect their life expectancy. That is not to mention the widely recognised mental health benefits of education in both the long and the short term.
Children cannot afford to miss out on any more face-to-face learning, given the effects on their educational opportunities and the wider impact. As the CMOs said,
“the additional likely benefits of reducing educational disruption, and the consequent reduction in public health harm from educational disruption, on balance provide sufficient extra advantage in addition to the marginal advantage at an individual level identified by the JCVI”.
Recommending vaccination for this age group is not undermining the JCVI’s advice; it is putting it into practice. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health agrees. It says:
“We believe that vaccination could benefit healthy children, irrespective of any direct health benefit, in enabling them to have less interruption to school attendance, to allow them to mix more freely with their friends”
“to help reduce the anxiety some children feel about COVID-19.”
We need to move swiftly on this. We need to strain every sinew to get children vaccinated, to help them, their families and the wider community. I hope that when the Minister rises to speak, she will say what more the Government are doing to encourage this and, critically, to make sure that the appalling threats to our schools are effectively dealt with. I look forward to her response.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this important and timely debate on the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds against covid-19. She quite rightly highlighted the importance of vaccine roll-outs and the programmes that we have had for many decades, and I thank her for that.
Before I respond to the various questions and points raised by hon. Members, I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for his efforts in successfully delivering the vaccine programme, with more than 93 million doses administered in the UK and more than four fifths of adults receiving the protection of two jabs. I aim to build on that very solid foundation in my new role.
I also put on record that I am very grateful to everyone who has played a crucial role in the success of the vaccine roll-out, from our brilliant scientists, clinical trial participants, the armed forces, NHS England, frontline healthcare workers, vaccine volunteers and local and central Government. Our jabs have already prevented more than 112,000 deaths, 230,000 hospitalisations and more than 24 million infections. They have built a vast wall of defence for the British people.
Earlier this year, our medicines regulator, the MHRA, approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for 12 to 17-year-olds. The MHRA authorisation decision confirmed that vaccines are safe and effective for this age group. On this decision, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommended vaccination for 12 to 15-year-olds with serious underlying health conditions. In August, the committee advised an initial dose of the vaccine for all healthy remaining 16 and 17-year-olds. The JCVI then looked at whether we should extend our offer of vaccination to all 12 to 15-year-olds. It concluded that there are health benefits to vaccinating this cohort, although they are finely balanced.
However, the JCVI’s remit does not include 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. The JCVI therefore advised that the Government might wish to seek further views on those wider impacts from the UK’s chief medical officers across all four nations. The Secretary of State and the Health Ministers from the devolved nations accepted that advice. Our CMOs consulted clinical experts and public health professionals from across the United Kingdom, such as those from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I trust that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South (Andrew Lewer), who raised concerns about professional advice.
We received advice from the four chief medical officers, and it was made publicly available and deposited in the Library for Members to read in full. The unanimous recommendation of the UK’s chief medical officers is to offer all remaining 12 to 15-year-olds a first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, with further JCVI guidance needed before any decision on a second dose. The CMOs have been clear that they make this recommendation based on the benefits to children alone, not on the benefits to adults or wider society.
I can confirm that the Government accepted this recommendation. We are now moving forward with the same sense of urgency that we have had at every point in our vaccination programme. I am delighted that a 14-year-old in Essex yesterday became one of the first children in the country to receive a covid-19 vaccination in school.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and I reassure him that the evidence is continually being observed and recorded. Further advice will be taken on whether a second dose is needed for the younger age range. Evidence is being gathered all the time.
I appreciate that there are questions about how the process of consent will work in circumstances where parents and children disagree. I reassure my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) that, as with all vaccinations for children, parental consent will be sought. The consent process is being handled by each school in its usual way and provides sufficiently for parents to give 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 parents prior to the date on which the immunisation is scheduled.
Parental, guardian or carer consent will be sought by the school age immunisation service prior to vaccination, in line with other school vaccination programmes. That service will carry out the vaccinations, and I trust that that reassures my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton South. The school age vaccination service has vast experience of dealing with a number of other vaccine roll-outs in secondary schools, such as the human papillomavirus vaccine and the three-in-one teenage booster that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and polio. The clinicians who work on these roll-outs are very well equipped and very well versed in dealing with vaccines in schools.
In their advice, the four CMOs have said it is essential that children and young people aged 12 to 15, and their parents, are supported in whatever decisions they take, and that they are not stigmatised for accepting or not accepting the vaccination offer. Individual choice should be respected. It is the opportunity to be vaccinated that is on offer, in a fair and equitable manner.
To those who remain undecided, I say this. The MHRA is the best medical regulator in the world. It has rigorously reviewed the safety of our vaccines, and it only authorises those that it concludes are safe. Vaccines for children and young people are no exception. We continue to have a comprehensive safety surveillance strategy in place across all age groups to monitor the safety of all covid-19 vaccines that are approved for use in the UK.
I will now address some of the interventions and questions from hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge asked a number of questions. I reiterate that the CMOs sought advice from experts in the field; it was not just the information they had themselves. It is only right that, based on that advice, 12 to 15-year-olds are able to take up the offer of the vaccine in a fair and equitable manner.
My hon. Friend asked about disruption to education from the programme. NHS England already has plans in place for the mop-up programme, which is not likely to be on school sites, to minimise disruption to education and the rest of the immunisation programme.
I very much appreciate the point and the reassurance the Minister is giving, but even the CMOs acknowledge that the vaccine programme in and of itself is not going to end disruption to schools. Whether people choose to have this vaccine or not—which absolutely should be a free decision, as the Minister says—what is more important is the policy making around having consistent rules in schools, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) said, but also ending mass asymptomatic testing, which is picking up cases that it does not need to pick up and is itself causing disruption. How will the disruption to schools end, even if vaccination does go ahead and cover a wide population?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. It is important that we do whatever we can—use whatever we have in our toolbox—to make sure that children are able to continue with their education, and vaccination is one part of that. I know my hon. Friend is passionate, as am I, about making sure that children get a full education, and that the pandemic does not affect their futures. My hon. Friend raised several other questions and, if she will allow me, I will write to her in response to any I do not answer in my speech.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Karl MᶜCartney) raised questions about guidance for schools on the vaccination programme. How the programme will work has been set out very clearly, including in the formation of the consent process, most recently updated on 17 September 2021. I would like to reassure my hon. Friend, who highlighted the three words “do no harm”, that robust monitoring arrangements are in place for the vaccination of 12 to 15-year-olds, and that further data will be available shortly.
I join the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) in absolutely condemning the threats and intimidation of headteachers, school staff and anybody who enters school premises. That is a big issue, and my advice is that headteachers who have received such intimidation should rapidly contact the school age immunisation service, which is well versed in addressing it. They should not be afraid to speak to the police and the local authority too. I assure her that that issue is extremely high on my priority list, which, as she can imagine, is getting longer.
It is important that we remember that our teenagers have shown great public spirit at every point during the pandemic, and I thank them for that. They have stuck to the rules so that lives can be saved and people kept safe, and they have been some of the most enthusiastic proponents of vaccines.
My focus at the moment is on ensuring the effective roll-out of the programme for 12 to 15-year-olds. We must ensure that the booster programme is rolled out effectively, and encourage the last few people who have not yet had the vaccine—I think it is about 5 million—to take up that offer.
I am conscious there are a few minutes left in this debate, so I want to refer quickly to three more issues. First, the Minister may have noticed that the first speech in support of the Government’s position came from an Opposition Member, who claimed to be speaking on behalf of all Opposition MPs, although there is only one here.
Secondly, a point was made about the seat of the hon. Member for Leicester West (Liz Kendall) and the number of young people who have, I believe, covid, although she did not give the actual number. However, if school children were not tested over the summer, surely they are now being tested in school and the incidence of those with covid will be rising. Therefore, I am being very gracious to both Front Benchers—
I will take my hon. Friend’s comments on board. More than half of 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom have had the jab, despite most having become eligible only last month, which shows young people’s enthusiasm to come forward and play their part.
At every point in our vaccination programme, we have been guided by the best clinical advice. The advice that we received from the four chief medical officers last week sets out their view that all 12 to 15-year-olds will benefit from vaccination against covid-19. We will follow that advice and continue that vital path to ensure we keep more and more people in this country safe.
I thank all hon. Members who contributed to this important debate. I also thank the Minister and the shadow Minister for their speeches. We are united in our desire to get back to normal, in our desire for children to have normal education, and in our praise of the vaccine programme, which has protected so many adults across this country.
To finish, I reiterate the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green): what is success? Where does this end? How do we get back to normal? I do not believe the vaccine roll-out among children will get us there. We need determined political leadership that puts the welfare of children front and centre, ends educational disruption and allows us to move forward with their future.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the vaccination of children against covid-19.