Minister will be guided by ‘expert advice’ as programme starts soon for children aged 12-15
Robin Swann has not ruled out the possibility that children aged under 12 in Northern Ireland may be offered the Covid-19 vaccine.
In response to an Assembly question submitted by Sinn Fein MLA Maoliosa McHugh, the Health Minister said there are no plans to roll out the vaccine to young children due to the fact none are currently approved for such use in the UK.
However, he continued: “Should a vaccine become available, we will be guided by expert advice on, if and how it should be deployed.”
It comes as it has emerged it will be next month before the programme is extended to the majority of 12 to 15 year olds here — meaning Northern Ireland is lagging behind the rest of the UK and Republic of Ireland on the roll-out of the jab to young people.
Mr Swann is currently facing a High Court challenge over his decision to offer one dose of Covid-19 vaccine to children aged 12 to 15.
He gave the green light for the programme to be extended to 12 to 15 year olds following a recommendation by the chief medical officer, who said the move will help to reduce the educational impact as infection and self-isolation during the pandemic.
Mr Swann asked Professor Sir Michael McBride to consider the issue after the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) advised against the universal vaccination of children aged 12 to 15.
Announcing its decision, the JCVI said “the benefits from vaccination are marginally greater than the potential known harms” but also said “there is considerable uncertainty regarding the magnitude of the potential harms”.
Yesterday, the Welsh health minister said all 12 to 15 year olds will be offered a Covid vaccine by the end of the October half-term.
In Scotland and England, vaccination of 12 to 15 year olds began a fortnight ago, while in the Republic of Ireland, registration for the cohort opened on August 12 and within hours, more than 50,000 had registered.
It is now two weeks since Mr Swann announced his decision to offer the vaccine to 12 to 15 year olds.
However, a spokeswoman from the Public Health Agency said last night: “Following recommendations from the JCVI and the four UK chief medical officers, children aged 12 to 15 will be offered the Covid-19 vaccine through the school immunisation programme.
“This element of the vaccination programme is due to start mid to late-October, with the majority of schools commencing in November.
“Parents will receive a letter, consent form and Covid-19 vaccine information material prior to the vaccine team visiting the school.
“Parents are reminded to look out for the consent form coming home in schoolbags, and are urged to read the information leaflets and talk to your children about the vaccine and make an informed decision together.”
Asked for a reason for the apparent delay compared to other nations, she said the Covid vaccine is being administered at the same time as the flu jab.
Alliance Party MLA Paula Bradshaw, a member of the Stormont health committee, said preparations to vaccinate 12 to 15 year olds, including providing information on the importance and safety of the vaccines, should have begun earlier to aid parents with their decision.
“Throughout the pandemic, it has always been obvious that the best results come about when authorities move ahead of the virus, rather than working only reactively,” she said.
“Many parents and children will be frustrated and dismayed that vaccinations seem set to start over two full months into the school year.”
Yesterday, a further 1,080 cases were recorded in Northern Ireland, with the seven-day case rate up from 7,602 to 7,858. A further three deaths linked to the virus were reported.