Teen vaccination delay triggers UK surge in Covid infections

Scientists raise fears that British government missed opportunity to blunt coronavirus spread

Covid-19 rates are surging among young teenagers, underlining fears that the British government missed an opportunity to vaccinate them earlier, figures released on Friday show.

Infections in children aged between 12 and 15 have risen considerably, with one in 12 now suffering from coronavirus, the Office for National Statistics reported.

In the past week, there was a 17 per cent surge among schoolchildren, overwhelming the belated government efforts to give them a single shot of the Pfizer vaccine.

With 204,000 pupils currently off sick, questions are being asked why the government did not take earlier action to inoculate young teenagers.

Given this age group has been devastated by loss of social interaction and interrupted education, it is deeply unfortunate that so many are now again missing school
Dr Ilan Kelman, London University

“Trying to find the logic in any aspect of the UK government's approach to the pandemic is challenging,” said Dr Ilan Kelman, a disaster planner at London University.

He said an “abundance of caution” might have resulted from the criticism that arose, after some young adults had adverse reactions to the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“But given this age group has been devastated by loss of social interaction and interrupted education, it is deeply unfortunate that so many are now again missing school. My concerns are over bad governmental leadership and a lack of decision-making early on.”

While Pfizer was approved by the European Medicines Agency in May for children aged over 12, Britain only began vaccinating in late September, about three weeks after children had already returned from summer holidays.

In June other countries, such as Denmark, Spain, France and Canada pressed ahead, inoculating youngsters, with the majority now protected.

So far only 12 per cent of British secondary school pupils have received a single shot despite a government promise to administer the doses to all by the October half-term break, which begins in days.

Britain is now experiencing another surge in infections, with 45,000 reported on Thursday, the highest in a single day since July.

Other European countries that have vaccinated the over-12s have seen either slight increases as schools returned or in Spain’s case a decrease, where nearly all the children have been vaccinated.

The percentage of British people testing positive for coronavirus was highest among 12 to 15-year-olds increasing from 6.9 per cent to 8.1 per cent in the week to 8 October, the ONS found.

Scientists have criticised the government for failing to vaccinate children much earlier.

“We should have started vaccinating children earlier but the government does seem to have got away with it because children are not dying from Covid,” said Prof Graeme Ackland, of Edinburgh University.

Much of the government decision-making was based on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, which advised there was only a marginal benefit to children’s health in having a vaccine. But it was not in its remit to highlight infection rates.

“I think it was very strange decision that the government just went with the JVCI advice and did not consider the benefit to other age groups,” said Prof Ackland.

“It is not what I would have suggested at the time especially with this group now clearly the most infectious cohort at the moment.”

There is also growing concern about infections spreading in other cohorts, with the latest ONS figures showing rises in the 2 to 11-years-olds, 15 to 24-year-olds and 35 to 49-year-olds.

This could point to the young teenage cohort now infecting younger and older siblings as well as their parents.

However, Prof Ackland said it was now clear the vaccines' main benefit was in reducing the severity of infection to something like flu.

“Data from Israel shows that infection-acquired immunity seems to be better than vaccine-acquired, though whether this works for the very mild version suffered by children we don't know.”

Updated: October 18th 2021, 12:18 PM