Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.
This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.
The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.
This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.
The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.
The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.
However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?
Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.
The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.
In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.
According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.
More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?
The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.
However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.
Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.
It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.