Just 7% of primary school children in England have received their first dose of Covid vaccine six weeks after it was rolled out to all 5–11-year-olds, as parents struggle to decide whether or not to take the offer.
That percentage compares to 24% of 12- to 15-year-olds who received a first dose in the first six weeks after becoming eligible in September 2021.
Scientists say the lower uptake among primary school children is due to the perception that Covid poses little risk to younger children.
Some parents were concerned about the risk of rare side effects from the vaccine. But according to Professor Russell Viner of University College London, who was part of the now-disbanded Emergency Scientific Advisory Group, they should be reassured by the near absence of side effects after widespread adoption in the US, which the Pfizer approved. /BioNTech vaccine last November.
“It’s a vaccination that probably isn’t particularly beneficial for this age group,” Viner said. “However, it has a very, very good safety profile. And as we remain in a pandemic, there is an argument that for individual parents the risk balance seems to be in the direction of vaccination.”
Viner said he was most concerned that children in vulnerable groups were getting the vaccine. “The benefits for the whole healthy population [of 5- to 11-year-olds] are mainly aimed at reducing school disruption and preventing further transmission to others,” he said. “For Omicron, however, the vaccines are quite poor at preventing further transmission. So I think the benefits of vaccination for this age group are very marginal. But that’s different for those who are clinically very frail. They are vulnerable to any respiratory virus and Covid is more serious than others.”
The area with the highest vaccination coverage for 5 to 11 year olds was Oxfordshire, at 12%, while Knowsley in Merseyside had the lowest, at 3%, according to the latest NHS vaccine data as of 8 May.
“All the vaccine uptake data shows very large disparities,” Viner said. “So it will be those children who are in the more clinically vulnerable segments of the more disadvantaged segments of the population that I would be most concerned about.”
dr. Peter English, a retired infectious disease consultant and past president of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said parents should be aware that a significant proportion of children continue to develop Covid long-term. “Some will suffer damage to their organs or immune systems that can leave them unwell months or years after infection.”
He said it was unclear whether vaccination would protect children from long-term Covid, although this is possible because vaccination reduces the risk of serious diseases and therefore reduces the chance of organ damage.
Emma Amoscato and her family spent some time discussing vaccinations before continuing to get doses for her two children, ages 9 and 6.
“We had a conversation — ‘would we, wouldn’t we’ — when America started offering jabs,” said Amoscato, the founder of the Smile mental health app. “Is the risk for the children so great, should we put something in their bodies?
“In the end it made sense to do it. We are both triple vaccinated. My husband is clinically frail. And it wasn’t the risk to life – it was the risk to the children of developing Covid for a long time and what that would mean for them, living with a long-term chronic illness.”
Chloe Haywood, a designer in Somerset, decided to get the vaccine for her three sons aged 11, 8 and 5 after the household fell ill with Covid. “They’ve all had shots when they were babies,” she said. “It was more a matter of how quickly we could book them.”
Before the latest rollout, some parents were concerned about the long-term Covid risk and tried to get their children vaccinated abroad.
An NHS spokesperson said: “Vaccination is a personal choice between families and their children, and we have now sent out invitations to all who qualify, providing parents with information so they can make an informed decision, while also interacting with their doctor or a local health care provider if they have any questions.”
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