Several countries, including the United States and Australia, recommend vaccinating children aged 5 to 11 against COVID.
The UK was much slower to approve this compared to some other countries and called it a “non-emergency offer” when COVID vaccines were made available to this age group in April this year. Children under five in the UK are not yet eligible for COVID vaccination.
The NHS promoted COVID vaccines for primary school-aged children alongside older children; however, adoption has been low. Only 11% of children aged 5 to 11 in England received the first dose.
Read more: My five-year-old is now eligible for a COVID vaccine – should I get him vaccinated?
But parents in England who want to have their children vaccinated once they turn five may no longer be able to do so. It has emerged that any child who turns five after August 2022 will not be eligible to receive a COVID vaccine until age 12, unless they are in a higher risk group. The relevant UK Health Security Agency policy states:
This one-time program applies to children aged 5-11, including those who turn five before the end of August 2022.
Wales will continue to offer the COVID vaccination to children who turn five after August 31, and it is not yet clear what Scotland and Northern Ireland are doing.
But this move to England makes little sense. Vaccinating children against COVID is important, despite some of the arguments to the contrary you might hear.
COVID can be serious for children
A popular idea is that COVID is a less severe infection in young children than in adults. Indeed, the data suggests that children generally fare better with COVID than adults. But that does not mean that all children have the same experience. Some children may suffer from serious infections.
And, of course, the risk of that happening is that much higher the more COVID cases there are. It’s no secret that we’ve seen high levels of COVID infections in the UK of late.
Hospitalizations for COVID among adults have declined largely due to successful vaccination campaigns. But unfortunately this is not the case for children. In 2020 in England, there were 3,259 under-18 hospitalizations for COVID. This figure has risen to 16,412 so far in 2022. Unfortunately, there have also been more child deaths from COVID – 37 at the end of July this year, compared to 51 in 2021 and 12 in 2020.
Children can also develop long COVID, and the more children infected, the more cases of long COVID we will see. Long COVID is a condition where symptoms persist for more than 12 weeks after initial infection and cannot be explained by another diagnosis. These symptoms can include shortness of breath, fatigue and gastrointestinal problems, for example, and can be life changing.
At least 105,000 children and young people currently have long COVID in the UK, 22,000 of whom have had symptoms for over a year. A staggering 18,000 children and young adults say their activities are “very limited”. This is an appalling number and again underlines that COVID is not a trivial infection.
The benefits of vaccination are clear
Some might suggest that natural immunity is better than a vaccine. Although we have incredible immune systems, it takes time for the immune system to kick in if exposed to a new threat. Vaccines teach your immune system what to do, so it can react quickly and appropriately when it encounters the virus.
A related argument is that young children may well have already been infected with COVID by the time they can be vaccinated, which could reduce the benefits.
While it is certainly true that many young children have been infected, it is now clear that prior COVID infection does not necessarily protect against reinfection. Notably, the risk of reinfection with omicron is much higher than with previous variants – about five times higher than the risk with delta – and younger people are more likely to be reinfected.
Moreover, hybrid immunity (immunity conferred by both vaccination and infection) seems to offer better protection than that against infection alone, an argument in favor of vaccinating children.
Some risks of vaccination have been circulating on social media, including that the vaccine can cause myocarditis (inflammation of the heart muscle). However, the risk of myocarditis is much higher because of a COVID infection itself. COVID vaccines have been used successfully and safely billions of times around the world.
Read more: Benefits of a COVID vaccine far outweigh the low risk of treatable heart inflammation
Weighing the risks and benefits shines a light on the real harms and costs of COVID in children, and the clear impetus to get them vaccinated. This analysis has led most developed countries to recommend that children be vaccinated against COVID.
Since schools and buildings are not necessarily protected by adequate ventilation and wearing a mask is no longer mandatory, vaccine protection is even more urgent. England are now an outlier in the world and it’s unclear why this decision was made.
Based on information from the Department of Health and Social Care, this article previously stated that all children aged 5-11 would no longer be eligible for COVID vaccination in England. The text has been corrected to clarify that only children who will be five years old from September 2022 will not be eligible.
COVID vaccine: Children in England who turn five will no longer be offered a shot – here’s why it’s bad news