The government believes there is a “strong case” for offering Covid jabs to healthy 12-15 year-olds, a source has told the BBC, as it awaits advice from the UK’s chief medical officers.
On Friday vaccine experts did not recommend a rollout as the benefits on health grounds alone were “marginal”.
They have now asked the chief medical officers to consider the wider implications of extending vaccinations to younger pupils.
A decision is expected within days.
The UK’s four chief medical officers, including England’s Chris Whitty, have been asked to make a final recommendation – which should come within a week.
The Times reported that the vaccinations could begin as soon as next week.
Earlier on Friday, the JCVI had said that the coronavirus presents only a small risk to healthy children and, therefore, the benefit of being vaccinated was not great enough to support mass vaccination for this age group.
The independent medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, has approved the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for those aged 12 and over.
Government sources believe vaccinating younger children could reduce disruption in schools and help keep infection rates down as winter approaches.
Up until now the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) with regards which groups should get the Covid jab has been followed across the UK.
On Friday the JCVI recommended widening the existing vaccine programme to include an extra 200,000 12-15 year-olds with specific underlying conditions.
But they stopped short of advising in favour of vaccinating healthy children in that age group, saying “the margin of benefit is considered too small to support universal vaccination… at this time”.
Prof Anthony Harnden, the JCVI’s deputy chairman, was asked on BBC Breakfast about the potential now for parents to soon be faced with having to make a decision on whether or not to have their child vaccinated when different experts had offered varying opinions.
He replied that past decisions on widening the rollout had been “fairly clear cut” but for this age group for healthy children there was not a “right or wrong”.
Prof Harnden added: “We have done our job. We have looked at the data, we have resisted a lot of pressure in terms of people making pronouncements – but we have actually coldly looked at the data.”
ANALYSIS BY ROWLAND MANTHORPE, SKY CORRESPONDENT
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has resisted intense pressure from ministers by refusing to recommend coronavirus vaccines for 12 to 15-year-olds.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said parents would find it “deeply reassuring” if children were given jabs, and leaks from Whitehall insiders suggested the JCVI was ready to sign off on vaccines for teenagers as schools return in England.
Yet although the vaccination programme has been expanded to cover more children with underlying health conditions, the JCVI has not approved vaccination for the entire age cohort.
This comes despite encouraging data on safety from the United States, where children have been receiving the vaccine for some time, as they have in France, Germany, Israel and the Netherlands.
Should the jab rollout be extended, he said “parents need to understand what the risks are, what the benefits are and make up their own mind about whether they offer consent or not… vaccinating 12-15 year-olds is not a black and white decision”.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid has asked the chief medical officers to consider the rollout of the vaccine to the new age group “from a broader perspective”.
Analysis by BBC Health Correspondent:
Ministers have let it be known they are keen on getting this age group vaccinated – both through public pronouncements and privately behind the scenes.
The argument is that it could reduce school disruption and keep infection levels low.
But there’s still plenty to consider. Giving this age group jabs would mean time out of class and possibly off school recovering from common side effects such as a mild fever.
This is not like the flu jab, which is a simple nasal spray.
Its ability to curb spread may be less than first assumed too. It is thought about half of this age group may have been infected already and therefore have natural immunity.
The emergence of the Delta variant also means the vaccine is less effective at stopping infection than previously – its main benefit is to prevent serious disease and as these healthy children are at incredibly low risk of that the benefits, as the JCVI points out, are marginal.
It is worth remembering that there are six million adults – twice the number in this age group – who still remain completely unvaccinated.
Perhaps there’s a disproportionate amount of attention given to children?
This means the rate of transmission will also be a key consideration for the four chief medical officers.
Labour said there was a “strong case for vaccination to prevent further disruption to children’s learning” and the government must “move urgently to make a decision” once the chief medical officers have given their advice.
Prof Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, told the BBC the chief medical officers have been asked for “advice in the round – not just about the individual risk per kid, but also look at the educational environment, the time off school, the safety of schools”.
In Scotland, pupils started returning to the classroom from 11 August.
However, cases doubled in a week, with the surge blamed partly on the return of schools after the holidays.
And last year, the surge that led to England’s second nationwide lockdown gathered pace in September as firstly schools and secondly universities reopened.
The government has maintained throughout the pandemic that it will follow the advice of scientists.
While scientists on the JCVI make recommendations, the chief medical officers directly have the ear of ministers.
Prof Chris Whitty is England’s chief medical officer, with Dr Frank Atherton, Dr Gregor Smith and Dr Michael McBride holding the roles in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland respectively.