Government efforts to offer Covid vaccinations to all 12- to 15-year-olds in England by half-term are under threat, amid reports that high infection rates in schools may be delaying the programme.
Officials had set the autumn half-term as a target to invite those in the age group to receive the vaccine, hoping quickly to vaccinate pupils after criticism that England was late compared with other countries.
With the half-term break less than three weeks away, some headteachers said they were still waiting to be given a date for their vaccination sessions, while others have complained about not enough vaccinators turning up to meet demand.
Further delays are building, because pupils who test positive for coronavirus have to wait 28 days before they can receive the Covid vaccination and need to be offered a later appointment.
Prof Kate Ardern, director of public health at Wigan council, told the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus on Tuesday that the government’s half-term target was laudable but warned of “a real delay” in delivery because of high infection rates in schools.
“If you have high rates of transmission among 15- to 19-year-olds, which is the challenge in Greater Manchester, what you do is put a delay on those individuals being offered vaccine, because if you test positive for coronavirus, there is a 28-day delay before you can receive your vaccine.
“So there’s disruption with a school-based vaccination programme, that actually puts in a delay in rolling out the vaccine. It’s very laudable that there’s a national target – the programme for 12- to 15-year-olds needs to be completed by half-term – but with the high transmission rates going on in that age group, that pushes a real delay in that programme being delivered.”
Figures released by the Department for Education (DfE) show that the number of children with confirmed or suspected cases of Covid has continued to rise steeply over the past fortnight.
The DfE found that 204,000 state school pupils in England were absent because of Covid last week, compared with 122,000 on 16 September. The new total included 102,000 off with confirmed cases of Covid, compared with 59,000 previously. A further 84,000 were off with suspected cases, and the remainder were self-isolating or sent home because of outbreaks in their school or class.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said too many children were still missing from school because of the pandemic. “Put simply, we cannot allow Covid to rage unchecked in schools, as it will only lead to more disruption to children’s education,” he said.
About one in 50 teachers and teaching assistants in England were also absent because of confirmed or suspected cases of the virus.
A number of heads of schools in West Sussex, Cornwall and Essex said they had not yet received a date for vaccinations but they were not unduly concerned. Elsewhere there were reports of teething problems with the programme, which has been slower than anticipated.
“It’s not something we are getting deluged about from members,” said Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders. “But we’ve picked up a few issues and there’s a sense this is taking a bit longer than we’d hoped.
“There do seem to be some cases of the immunisation team perhaps underestimating the task. I’ve heard a couple of stories of schools where the immunisation team is in touch, saying: ‘We will be in Tuesday and will vaccinate all of your students on that day.’ The heads told us there were only a couple of people in the team and there’s no way they could get through everyone in a single day, and they have to come back in a week or a fortnight’s time.”
Glyn Potts, the headteacher at Newman Roman Catholic college in Oldham, said the school was told to expect 13 nurses to administer 436 vaccines but just six vaccinators turned up; 250 pupils were jabbed and a later date set for the rest.
The DfE said it was “rolling out the vaccine to 12- to 15-year-olds as quickly as possible” and was encouraging older students and staff to continue twice-weekly testing to reduce the rate of Covid absences.