The decision not to recommend Covid-19 vaccines for all children aged between 12 and 15 will make it “more difficult” to guard against educational disruption, a school leaders’ union has warned.
As pupils return to school across the country, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has said it is not recommending mass vaccination of pupils aged between 12 and 15.
But it is widening the rollout to around 200,000 more children in this age bracket who have underlying health conditions.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the union was “disappointed” that the Government’s vaccine advisers had decided against a mass rollout of the age group.
He warned: “We understand that this decision has been made after making an assessment of the balance of risks and with all the available evidence, and we respect that decision.
“Nevertheless, the upshot is that this would make it more difficult during the autumn term and beyond to guard against educational disruption caused by transmission of the virus.”
Mr Barton added: “In the meantime, it is now even more important that the government does everything possible to provide support to schools and colleges to manage this situation and keep children in class.
“As it stands, the government has removed the main safeguards that were in place last academic year, and we would repeat our warning that it must keep the situation under close review and be ready to act if there is a significant increase in cases.
“We simply cannot have another term in which there is major educational disruption. It is not fair on pupils and their families or on the schools and colleges which are trying so hard to support them.”
The decision came after a group of scientists called for all young people aged 12 and over to be offered a coronavirus vaccine as they warned that allowing mass infection of children is “reckless”.
They also called for rules on face coverings for secondary school students and staff in classrooms and for bubbles to be reinstated, as well as more investment in building ventilation.
The group have written to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson alongside some parents, carers and educational staff to express their concerns about the impact of the pandemic on education.
This week, Mr Williamson indicated his support for a widening of the programme by saying a lot of people “very much hope that we’re in a position of being able to roll out vaccinations for those who are under the age of 16”.
He had said the NHS was ready to go into schools to deliver jabs to that age group “if we get the get-go”.
The UK’s four chief medical officers are to consider further evidence on offering jabs to all healthy 12 to 15-year-olds.
The largest teaching union in the UK has suggested that additional safety measures in schools will become “more important” if chief medical officers decide not to vaccinate the group.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: “The decision by JCVI today will be considered by chief medical officers of the four nations next week, who will be able to take into account the wider issues of disruption to education and wider community transmission.
“If the decision not to vaccinate is upheld by the chief medical officers, this makes additional safety mitigations in schools all the more important.
“Sadly, in taking away so many safety measures last term, without replacing them with others, the Government has left schools open to another rise in case counts – which will mean many children and staff missing school if they test positive.”
Pupils across England and Wales have begun to return to class this week after the summer holidays, and schools in Northern Ireland have reopened.
Schools in Scotland returned a fortnight ago and the reopening is believed to have contributed to a rise in cases north of the border.
All secondary school and college pupils are being invited to take two lateral flow tests at school, three to five days apart, in England on their return.
Schools and colleges are being encouraged to maintain increased hygiene and ventilation, and secondary school and college pupils in England have been asked to continue to test twice weekly at home.
Schools in England no longer have to keep pupils in year group “bubbles” to reduce mixing and face coverings are no longer advised.
Children do not have to isolate if they come into contact with a positive case of Covid-19. Instead, they will need to get a PCR test and isolate only if positive.