The Joint Committee for Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) ruled on Friday that the jab should not be rolled out universally to children as young as 12. It decided against backing the move on health grounds alone, because Covid presents such a low risk to the age group.
However, Health Secretary Sajid Javid has left the final decision to Professor Chris Whitty and his fellow chief medical officers .
It has been argued the JCVI did not take into account wider benefits from jabbing children, including avoiding disruption to their education.
Preparations are now under way to roll out the vaccination, and ministers are reportedly already predicting a green light ‑ giving weight to claims that political pressure is being brought to bear on apparently independent scientists.
One expert last night insisted the JCVI had only done its job and had refused to “bend” to politicians and activists.
Professor Robert Dingwall, who recently stepped down from the JCVI, said the group had successfully “maintained the integrity of the process” through reaching its independent conclusion.
But he warned there is a danger of politicians ruining “60 years of work protecting the nation for a short-term policy goal”.
Professor Dingwall added: “If I were still a JCVI member, I would be sleeping better tonight, knowing I had done my duty by the nation’s children.
“If ministers want to push ahead, I cannot see how the legal and ethical standards for informed consent can be met by a school-based programme, especially if this is being justified by arguments about educational continuity.”
“In its recommendation, the JCVI noted “the margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination of healthy 12 to 15-year-olds at this time”.
Its chairman Andrew Pollard said: “The JCVI recommendation is consistent with the available evidence.”
The threat to overturn the body’s recommendation has already sparked anger.
Last night, Conservative MPs were signing up to a letter from the parents’ group UsForThem calling on the Government to stick to the recommendation.
The letter to Professor Whitty said: “Despite the fact the UK has comparable Covid mortality rates to our European neighbours, British children have missed significantly more schooling than children in almost any other European country.
“We therefore urge you to make your recommendation based on the potential harms and benefits to children of the vaccine itself, and not based on the harms they may suffer as a result of potential policy decisions.”
One of the signatories, Penistone and Stocksbridge Conservative MP Miriam Cates, a former teacher, pointed out that, until now, the Government had been insisting it was “following the science”.
She said: “Throughout the pandemic, the Government has insisted we follow the science and, in following the science, the JCVI has decided not to recommend the vaccination of healthy children.
“For all other cohorts, the Government has accepted the recommendation of the JCVI and so I’m very surprised it has asked for the decision to be reviewed.
“I’m also concerned that Professor Whitty has been asked to consider ‘educational disruption’ in his recommendation. School closures are a political decision not a scientific one, and our children should only be vaccinated if it is in the best interests of their health.”
Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of backbench Tory MPs, said: “The JCVI has conducted a serious review of the medical evidence and has not recommended routine vaccination of healthy children.
“It would be wrong to make policy on any basis other than what is in the interests of children themselves.”
“Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s scientific advisory body Sage, warned the country could face “a lot of disruption” to education without a wider rollout.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the medical officers faced a difficult decision. “They’re going to take a wider perspective than the JCVI took and I think that’s right,” he said.
“We have to take into consideration the wider effect Covid might have on children and their education and developmental achievements.
“It’s difficult to say how many children haven’t been infected but it’s probably about half, that’s about six million, so that’s a long way to go if we allow infection to run through the population.”
However, Professor Adam Finn, a member of the JCVI, said “there is very little benefit” to vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds.
He said the committee has been getting “very up-to-date” information from paediatric cardiologists in the US, who are managing children who have experienced myocarditis ‑ inflammation of the heart muscle ‑ as a side effect.
He added that although there were “small numbers” suffering with the side effect, there are still “some early concerns” it might be a “problem in the longer term”.