By Harry Bell
Scotland’s biggest teaching union claims withholding Covid vaccines from 12-15-year-olds is “unethical”.
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS union, made the statement after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) stopped short of recommending jabs for young teenagers.
He said the situation in schools right now was “the most challenging” it had been during the pandemic.
He wants pupils to be given access to the immunisations in schools.
On Friday, the JCVI did not, as anticipated, recommend jabs for 12 to 15-year-olds.
Instead, it put responsibility onto chief medical officers to consider the benefits of extending the rollout.
Mr Flanagan told the BBC the EIS backed extending the jabs programme to those aged 12-15.
He said: “We think that it is important in terms of sustaining education with minimal disruption.
“We think it would be unethical to withhold from healthy 12-15 year olds a vaccine that is available to the rest of the population.
“And particularly with the focus on the rights of the child we think it would be important that secondary pupils have the opportunity to have this vaccination.”
‘As challenging as it has been’
Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the EIS teaching union.
He said schools were at the centre of surging infection rates since they returned two weeks ago.
“It has been hugely disruptive,” he said. “We have a record number of students who are infected, we have a record number of teachers and school staff who are absent because of Covid, and this is with the limited test and trace that is happening around the close contact arrangements.
“So the situation is probably as challenging as it has been and we are keen to keep schools open, we are keen to see young people in the classroom, so I think the vaccine would go a long way to actually ensuring that secondary schools at least are safer environments for all of those who are involved in the school community.”
He also said that carrying out vaccinations in schools would make it as easy as possible for those who are entitled to a vaccine and want one, to access it.
Mr Flanagan’s response came just a few hours after an NHS public health expert described the delay on a decision as “frustrating”.
Jillian Evans, from NHS Grampian, said going ahead would help prevent transmission of the virus.
The board’s head of health intelligence also said it would protect children from long Covid.
Speaking on BBC Radio’s Good Morning Scotland programme, she said: “We know that the JCVI’s decision is predominantly based on the individual benefits and risks to a child, and not considering some of the wider impacts, and that’s what the chief medical officers will do.
“The thing about this is, it’s frustrating because it just builds in further delay in a decision that we’ve already been pushing for, so it delays things a little bit further.
“Although I’m absolutely certain that there’ll be a lot of activity going on right now and in the days ahead so we can get to a decision as quickly as possible.”She said that although the risk of long Covid in children was deemed to be small, much was still unknown about the illness.
Ms Evans added: “You might pick up this news and think the JCVI has said no.
“They haven’t said no – what they’ve said is on the balance of marginal benefits of vaccination against the risk of severe disease we’re saying no, but we’re leaving it open for you to consider other wider considerations.
“So people might get confused by that.”
Scotland is currently experiencing its highest level of infections since the pandemic began.
One in 75 people are believed to have had the Covid-19 virus last week, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
This was a big increase from the previous week’s estimate of one in every 140 people.
Scotland reported 6,711 new cases on Friday and 10 further deaths of people who had previously tested positive for the virus.
The reopening of schools is believed to have contributed to soaring figures.
It had been hoped vaccinating younger children would go ahead to help reduce disruption in schools and help keep infection rates down as winter approaches.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said on several occasions that if the JCVI recommended the use of the vaccine for children over the age of 12, the country would “move as quickly as possible to implement the advice”.
She told MSPs: “Vaccination may well be an important way of giving children greater protection, minimising any further disruption to schooling, and further reducing community transmission of the virus.”
Ready and waiting for a decision on the vaccination of teenagers.
While the JCVI refused to give the go-ahead, it said wider issues could be considered, including the impact on education and protecting the whole population.
Up until now, the advice of JCVI with regard to which groups should get the Covid jab has been followed across the UK.
Chief medical officers (CMOs) from around the UK are now considering these impacts and will report in the coming days.
On Friday, Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said he had joined his counterparts around the four nations in order to ask for more advice.
He tweeted: “I thank JCVI for advice in relation to vaccinating 12-15yr olds.
“I have spoken to other Health Ministers across UK & we have asked our respective CMOs to rapidly explore wider educational & societal impacts in relation to vaccinating 12-15yr olds – as per JCVI’s suggestion.”
Scotland’s national clinical director said there was “absolutely still a chance” that healthy children aged 12 to15 could get Covid-19 vaccines.
The JCVI’s decision focused squarely on the benefits of vaccination to children themselves – not on how it helps other people.
Children’s risk from Covid is not zero but the chances of them becoming seriously ill from the virus are small. Deaths among healthy children are extremely rare – most of those who have died had life-limiting health conditions.
That means there needs to be a clear and obvious advantage to giving them a jab.
Many countries have already started vaccinating all teenagers and 12-year-olds, including the US, France, Italy, Spain, The Netherlands and Ireland.
Meanwhile, primary and secondary school pupils will start receiving their flu vaccine tomorrow (Monday) as Scotland’s biggest flu immunisation programme gets underway.
Over four million people will be offered the free flu vaccine this year with secondary school pupils eligible for the first time.
Running until December all primary and secondary school pupils will be offered the vaccine which is given as a painless nasal spray.
Public Health Minister Maree Todd, pictured left, said: “More people than ever are being offered the flu vaccine and we hope to see a large uptake amongst pupils as we aim to keep flu out of schools this year.
“If you’ve not missed the deadline for returning consent forms to your school, I’d urge you to complete and return these now. Last year with the public health measures that were in place, there was lower levels of flu than there has been in previous years so our immunity levels to flu may be lower this year.
“The vaccines are safe and the best way to help protect you, and others, from flu this winter.”
The flu virus changes every year, so you need to get the vaccine every year to stay protected. The flu vaccine cannot give you flu, but it can stop you catching it. The COVID-19 vaccine does not offer any protection from flu, you need to get the separate flu vaccine.
In a small number of cases, the nasal spray may not be suitable, and the vaccine can be given as an injection in the arm instead.
For more information about the flu vaccine, visit www.nhsinfrom.scot/childflu, call 0800 030 8013, or speak to a health or immunisation team, practice nurse, or GP.
This year, the following groups are eligible for the flu vaccine:
- all those aged 50 years of age and over
- those over 6 months of age with a medical condition which puts them in an ‘at risk’ group such as asthma, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, heart and lung diseases, or autoimmune disorders.
- healthcare workers
- social care workers who deliver direct personal care
- unpaid and young carers
- pregnant women (including those with at risk conditions)
- children aged 2-5 years old (not yet at school)
- primary school children
- secondary school pupils
- NHS independent contractors including GP, dental and optometry practices, community pharmacists and laboratory staff working on COVID-19 testing
- teachers, nursery teachers and support staff in close contact with pupils (in both a local authority and independent setting)
- prison staff and support staff in close contact with the prison population (delivering direct detention services)
- those in the prison population