Almost nine in 10 parents in England say they favour giving their children a Covid vaccine if they are offered it, according to a national survey released by the Office for National Statistics.
The survey of more than 4,400 parents with children under the age of 16 and attending school found that 88% said they would definitely or probably agree to vaccinate their child, with just 12% saying they would not favour vaccination.
The survey was conducted in April and May, before the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine was given approval by the UK medicines regulator for children aged 12-15 at the start of June. The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is expected to advise the government later this summer whether to allow under-18s to be vaccinated.
The findings come as Prof Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), suggested there was not enough evidence to support vaccinating children against Covid.
Speaking to the BBC in a personal capacity, Semple said not enough was yet known about possible side-effects if children were given Covid jabs, noting that there was “rock-solid data” to show that the risk of severe harm to children from Covid was “incredibly low”.
“Vaccines are safe, but not entirely risk free. We are aware in adults about clots, and there’s some safety data from America showing rare heart problems associated with some of the vaccines. So until that data is really complete for children, I’m not persuaded that the risk benefit for children has been clarified,” Semple said.
Prof Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the JCVI, told the BBC: “JCVI are very aware of the issues surrounding both the pros and the cons of vaccinating their children, which we will talk about it in due course, but actually what we need to be absolutely sure is that these vaccines benefit children in some way … so we are looking at this data very carefully.”
Semple, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, suggested there was not enough data available for the JCVI to decide. “I’m not convinced that the evidence base there is strong enough to support vaccination of children because we don’t have complete safety data for the vaccines that we would want to use.”
Other experts said the UK should eventually move towards vaccinating teenagers – but not until more equitable access to Covid-19 vaccines in developing countries had been achieved.
Prof Russell Viner of the UCL institute of child health in London and former president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “Once vaccine supply is less of an issue and we have adequate safety data, my personal belief is that we should be vaccinating our teenagers at the same time as contributing towards international supply.”
Speaking at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) on Thursday, Viner explained that teenagers and children would become the primary source of infection for vulnerable individuals once most adults had been double-jabbed.
Viner said: “Vaccinating all the adults has changed the dynamics of this pandemic. That’s one of the reasons, in my mind, that we should think about vaccinating them.”
He added that although the current system of sending home entire school bubbles if one child tested positive had been highly effective, it was very different to the test, trace and isolate strategy used in adults.
“In the future, I would argue the most important thing is that there is equity across children and adults. We know that small, but real numbers of those who have been double-jabbed do get infected. So it may be that isolation will be required, in some sense, for significant contacts for those who are vaccinated in the future.”
Viner said that the question of whether to extend vaccination to children under the age of 12 was a separate one, and that there was barely any safety data on the use of Covid-19 vaccines in this age group at the current time. “Young children have quite different immune responses to even older adolescents and adults, and that I think councils caution,” he said.
Even though the risks of to children and teenagers from catching Covid-19 are very low, they are not entirely absent, said Prof Beate Kampmann, the director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also addressing the RSM, “We have also seen the evolution of long Covid in children; it’s a rare condition but it can also be very debilitating.”
According to the ONS, the most common reasons given by parents opposed to vaccination for their children were that not enough research has been carried out, or that they wanted more information about long-term side effects or had concerns over vaccine safety.
The survey found that parents with children at secondary school were the most enthusiastic, with 53% saying they would definitely support vaccination for their children and just 4% saying they definitely would not. Nearly 35% of parents said they were “unsure but probably yes” in favour of vaccination.
Among the parents of primary school-age children, 43% were definitely in favour and 46% were “unsure but probably yes” in favour of vaccination. Just 3% said they were “definitely” opposed, while a little more than 7% were recorded as “unsure but probably no”.
The survey comes amid concern at the growing number of cases affecting school attendance in England, as the Delta variant continues to spread. Headteachers fear further disruption when the next school year begins in September.