Covid vaccine for children: Who is eligible and what are the side effects?

Covid jabs will be offered to children aged five to 11 in England, Scotland and Wales, following advice from scientists.

Here are the answers to some of the key questions about vaccines for younger children.

What is the latest?

The independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises the Government, has recommended that a “non-urgent” offer of vaccines should be made to all children aged between 5 and 11.

The advice was given to ministers more than a week ago, with Wales and Scotland first to act, ahead of an announcement by the JCVI on Wednesday, supporting rollout across the UK. 

What is the point of this decision? 

Many scientists say the approval has come too late to assist in efforts to protect children against the current wave of omicron, which appears to be on its way out. 

The latest data suggests more than seven in 10 children have had covid, giving them some immunity. But the JCVI say the jabs could help to increase protection against potential future waves of Covid-19.

Its scientists say this could “protect the very small number of children” who develop severe disease from serious illness and hospitalisation, and provide some short-term protection against mild infection across the age group. 

When can children aged five to 11 get their first jab? 

The programme will start being rolled out in April, with two jabs 12 weeks apart, meaning second jabs should start being delivered in July. 

How does that protect children from future waves? 

The timing is curious. Allowing children to have two jabs by July may make it easier for parents to plan summer holidays, but most scientists fear the return of future waves of Covid in the winter, by which time protection may have waned. 

Will children definitely be able to get jabs from April?

The JCVI and the Health Secretary have given the NHS a clear instruction not to allow this programme to delay other activities which they deem more important – such as the rollout of MMR jabs, and HPV vaccines which protect against cervical cancer. 

And they have also stressed that getting jabs and boosters to adults and vulnerable young people should be prioritised first. While the NHS has been told to prepare to start offering jabs to those aged five to 11 years old from April, the advice to prioritise other activities could mean some areas may move more slowly than others. 

Will offering children jabs help parents planning overseas holidays? 

Some families planning holidays have complained that the lack of jabs for under-12s has left them facing logistical headaches.

The majority of countries in Europe are now introducing jabs for under-12s, and some holiday resorts have banned those who are unvaccinated.

Did jabs not get approved for five to 11-year-olds in December?

The usual protocol for vaccine approval starts with the UK medicines regulator, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which confirms whether or not a vaccine is safe and effective after looking at all of the data submitted by pharmaceutical companies.

Vaccination experts on the JCVI then assess this data and other factors – in this case, school absences and rates of infection – before they advise ministers as to whether they should offer a vaccine. Ministers then announce their decision.

The MHRA announced in December that a special “paediatric formulation” of the Pfizer/BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine was safe for use among children aged five to 11. 

The JCVI then said that the vaccine could be offered to “at risk” children in this age group, but reserved its decision on wider use among this cohort until making an announcement on Wednesday. 

Why have different countries in the UK made the announcement at different times?

The JCVI guidance was given to ministers more than a week ago, but since then the announcement has been held up.

A government spokesman said on Tuesday that it was being reviewed “as part of wider decision-making ahead of the publication of our long-term strategy for living with Covid-19”.

This plan is due to be published on Feb 21. Ministers are understood to have been keen to frame the option in a context that sees more emphasis on personal responsibility, and less on government diktat.

With Wales and Scotland getting ahead with their announcements, the JCVI decision and announcements from ministers in England and Northern Ireland finally emerged on Wednesday.

What is this ‘paediatric formulation’?

Children aged five to 11 will be offered a much lower dose of the vaccine – lower than that offered to adults or children aged 12 and over.

They will be offered a 10 micrograms dose compared with 30 micrograms.

The MHRA said the vaccine is given as two injections in the upper arm.

The JCVI has recommended a dosing interval of 12 weeks between doses. 

Are there any side effects?

When the MHRA approved the jab for younger children it said that its review of side effects found that the “overwhelming majority” were mild, including a sore arm and flu-like illness.

It examined lots of data, including information from the US where millions of children aged five to 11 have now been vaccinated. The jab has also been on offer to this age group in a number of countries around the world.

What about myocarditis? 

When the JCVI  deliberated on rolling out vaccines to children aged 12 to 15, one of their greatest concerns was about whether jabs increased the risk of heart inflammation, with particular concerns about second doses. 

As a result, when vaccines were first offered to this age group, they were only offered one jab.

The precaution was taken because of evidence from other countries linking most cases of myocarditis to second jabs. However, most nations have shorter intervals between doses. 

In November, the JCVI said the rollout of jabs to adults suggests that with a longer interval, of up to 12 weeks, there is almost no risk of the condition. 

Evidence suggests that myocarditis is also far less common in younger children. 

But today scientists said those aged five to 11 should have a 12-week gap between doses, 

Where will children be given jabs?

It has not yet been announced where children will be vaccinated.

Children aged 12 and over and vulnerable five to 11-year-olds have been able to use NHS facilities and some schools have been used as vaccination sites.

How many children will be offered the jab?

There are an estimated 5.8 million five to 11-year-olds in the UK.

Of course, some of these will have already been offered a chance to have a vaccine if they are in vulnerable groups.

Will children under the age of five ever be offered the jab?

It is a possibility but those decisions are a long way off.

The UK has taken time to weigh up the risks and benefits of vaccinations for children and often taken much longer than some other Western countries to confirm it is happy for its youngest citizens to get a Covid jab.

Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said it needed more data before considering whether children aged six months to four years should be offered the Pfizer vaccine.

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