The announcement of a plan to expand Covid vaccinations to all children aged five to 11 has been delayed amid an apparent impasse between the government and its vaccinations watchdog.
While the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) made its decision more than a week ago, Downing Street is reviewing the verdict. A decision is now expected to be announced on 21 February, when Boris Johnson unveils the government’s long-term Covid plan.
The JCVI’s recommendation has not yet been made public. It is understood it will expand vaccinations to all younger children but via a “non-urgent” offer to parents, given the relatively small health risks to the age group.
Clinically vulnerable five- to 11-year-olds were offered vaccines from December, but moves to expand the programme to all younger children were held up to allow the JCVI to hear a broad range of evidence on the issue.
Officials scheduled a briefing to announce the advice on Friday of last week, and then for this Monday, but it has been again delayed, prompting some bafflement within the JCVI.
Ministers are deciding whether to accept the recommendation, with a decision coming in just over a week when Boris Johnson is due to outline his long-term strategy for Covid. It is set to include an end to all domestic restrictions in England.
A government spokesperson said: “No decisions have been made by ministers on the universal offer of a Covid-19 vaccine to all five- to 11-year-olds. We are committed to reviewing the JCVI’s advice as part of wider decision-making ahead of the publication of our long-term strategy for living with Covid-19.”
The move appears especially unusual given that, while JCVI recommendations are seen by ministers before being announced, this is usually just a brief process to consider legal and logistical issues. This is ordinarily done by the health department, not No 10.
Ministers have previously expressed frustration at the JCVI’s caution in extending vaccines to children, an area where the UK lags behind several EU nations and the US.
The vaccines watchdog, which is completely independent, has a remit that means its decisions are meant to be based largely on the health impact on the particular cohort being considered, and less on wider benefits such as lower Covid transmission and the impact on education.
In September, the JCVI declined to recommend vaccination for healthy 12- to 15-year-olds, saying the margin of benefit was “considered too small”. But in an unprecedented suggestion it said ministers could consider seeking separate advice on areas outside its remit, such as disruption to schools, and make a different decision – which they did.
With Covid vaccinations the JCVI makes recommendations that health departments in the four UK nations decide whether to accept. The confusion around JCVI advice comes as the government faced further criticism for suggestions that access to free lateral flow tests could be reduced or removed all together.
According to sources speaking to the Guardian last week the Treasury is looking at a number of options to cut spending, with the provision of free lateral flow tests to people without symptoms expected to end.
While a government spokesperson said there were no plans to stop free tests when regulations are due to end on 24 February, following Johnson’s announcement Dr Stephen Griffin, a virologist at the University of Leeds, said the alleged idea was concerning.
“I remain astonished at the prospect of dismantling our testing system and, more specifically at the withdrawal of free tests,” he said. “Even if we come to a point where asymptomatic testing en masse feels no longer viable, the opportunity to test prior to engaging with at risk activities, or more importantly with at risk people, should remain. It certainly shouldn’t be restricted to those wealthy enough to afford it.”
Prof Lawrence Young, a virologist and molecular oncologist at the University of Warwick, said ending free tests “reinforces the misplaced view that the pandemic is over and that we can all go back to a pre-pandemic world where Covid doesn’t exist”.
He added: “This move will encourage people not to bother about getting tested, leaving those who are actively infectious to spread the virus. Those who recognise the value of testing and are concerned about spreading the virus to elderly relatives and the clinically vulnerable will be tempted to stock up on lateral flow tests while they remain free – and who can blame them?”
A further 41,270 positive Covid cases in the UK were reported on Sunday, together with a further 52 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.
While the trend in daily reported cases – which reflects infections picked up by testing – continues to show a marked decline, data from the Office for National Statistics, based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, suggests infection levels nonetheless remain high.
While trends in the ONS data typically lag a couple of weeks behind case data – in part because the former can include people who test positive for some time after acquiring their infection – the latest figures suggest about one in 19 people in England had the virus in the week ending 5 February.