I won’t have been the only parent concerned by news last week that the Pfizer vaccine may be approved for use on children as early as June and potentially rolled out to school pupils from September. Healthy children are at almost no serious risk from Covid-19 – the recovery rate for this age group has been calculated at over 99.99 per cent. The argument that children should have the vaccine is not based on a belief that they need or benefit from it but on the logic that it would be good for our communities at large if children were jabbed. In short, those advocating it assume that children have an obligation to protect adults.
As recently as December, Matt Hancock said that “this vaccine will not be used for children… [because] the likelihood of children having significant detriment if they catch Covid-19 is very, very low… this is an adult vaccine, for the adult population.” The Health Secretary has gone rather quiet now.
But the oddest aspect of the story is the timing of it: the majority of the adult population has now been vaccinated and last month UCL modelling suggested that the UK would reach herd immunity by April 12 – three weeks ago. If we have already reached this threshold – or are even close to reaching it – why are we discussing medical interventions on children? What’s holding us back from reopening now is the fact that the Government seems scared to put its faith in the vaccine, not a lack of vaccinated people.
Covid 19 vaccines are, of course, beneficial to the vast majority of the adult population – and it’s highly likely that they will turn out to be entirely safe for children. But we owe it to children, who can’t make these decisions for themselves, to be extra cautious. And, as yet, we simply can’t be 100 per cent certain. The Pfizer vaccine clinical trial included just 2,260 children, which I am told is unlikely to be large enough to reveal some rarer side effects. Children have a lifetime ahead of them and their immunological and neurological systems – still in development – may respond differently from their parents.
We already know that in a handful of cases the vaccine has caused harm. These are exceptional events and most adults of all ages will rightly take the jab, calculating that the benefits outweigh the risk. But the equation for children is different. In a recently published open letter, Israeli doctors said, “we believe that not even a handful of children should be endangered through mass vaccination against a disease not dangerous to them” – “haste is from the devil”, they add.
It’s worth noting that the UK Government has granted immunity from liability for harms to all Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers. Can we really ask children to accept a greater risk than the manufacturers themselves are prepared to live with?
Indeed, based on the lack of expected benefits for healthy children, there is a case for contending that the recruitment of children to clinical trials is, at this stage, unethical under the Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine. This convention clearly states that where there is no direct benefit to the individual, consent can only be given in exceptional circumstances and, importantly, where the research entails only minimal risk and minimal burden. One senior pharmaceutical physician told me that while he believed there may be a rational ethical basis for the inclusion of vulnerable children in these trials, he could not see how the clinical trial of a healthy child meets the criteria.
Then there is a whole host of broader societal issues to consider. Would vaccinated children be treated differently to unvaccinated children – for example, in access to facilities? Or to schooling? Or in being granted exemptions from other Covid measures – masks, testing, isolation? Most importantly – how and where will this end: what other diseases will children be expected to shield adults from in the future and how often will we ask them to do so?
Britain’s vaccine programme has been a roaring success: all those most vulnerable to the disease have now been offered one, if not two doses of a jab. Children are at negligible risk from Covid. These facts are blessings. We must not squander them by asking children to shoulder a burden they were never meant to carry.