Downing Street has confirmed that Covid vaccine appointments for children will be bookable from next week in England, as Boris Johnson said the UK still faced a “difficult winter” as a result of coronavirus and flu putting pressure on the NHS.
After the latest daily number of deaths climbed to 223 – the highest level since early March – the prime minister’s spokesperson echoed concerns from the NHS England chief executive, Amanda Pritchard, that people needed to be reminded the virus was still circulating in order to drive up vaccination rates.
“I think we absolutely want to get that message out,” the spokesperson said on Tuesday, adding that there was no reason yet for the government to dust off its “plan B” of winter measures for England because hospitalisations and deaths remained “broadly flat”.
He defended the rollout of jabs for 12- to 15-year-olds, which has been accused of progressing too slowly, and confirmed that the programme would be extended beyond schools. Doses will be able to be administered at vaccination sites and parents and guardians of eligible children will receive a text or letter shortly inviting them to use the national booking service or ring 119 to book an appointment.
After a cabinet meeting held at the Science Museum on Tuesday, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “The prime minister stressed that our autumn and winter plan continues to keep the virus under control and that case rates and hospital admissions remain broadly flat. He re-emphasised that we must put all our energies into our vaccination programmes and set out that the booster vaccination programme continues at pace, with over 3.7 million people having received their third jab.”
He said Johnson told his senior ministers that “although we face a difficult winter, we have a plan in place to steer the country through this period and people should continue to follow the guidance and get their jabs when called upon.”
Explaining how children will soon be able to get jabbed at vaccine centres, Johnson’s spokesperson said: “The vaccine sites will come online shortly… Children will be able to get vaccinated at the existing centres, which include GP practices, pharmacies and other local sites. It’s simply an expansion of the programme as we saw at the start of the very early days of the initial vaccine rollout.”
He called the initial approach of offering jabs to children in schools “tried and tested” and said this had been an “important function in the expansion of our programme”, but added: “We want to do everything possible to expand and ensure we can get these jabs in as efficiently and safely as possible.”
The number of pupils in England who are off school because of Covid has risen again, according to the fortnightly Department for Education attendance statistics. The data shows 209,000 children were not in school for Covid-related reasons on 14 October, up from 204,000 when figures last came out. Of these, 111,000 were confirmed Covid cases, an increase of 9,000.
Overall, the proportion of pupils attending school went up marginally over the past fortnight, from 89.5% on 30 September to 90%, but Covid-related absence in state schools edged up from 2.5% to 2.6%.
The figures are the third batch of fortnightly statistics to be published since schools in England reopened for the autumn term with significant reduced mitigation measures, and ministers will be hoping the sharp rise in infection and absence rates is beginning to ease.
A fortnight ago, the number of pupils off school for Covid reasons jumped by 66%, from 122,000 two weeks earlier.
James Bowen, the director of policy for the school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We currently have record Covid-related absence in schools. The government cannot just sit back and accept the growing numbers of cases amongst school-age children.”
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, told the House of Commons he would publish a “detailed programme for the winter” for the NHS within a fortnight.
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, had asked what Javid would do personally to avert “a winter crisis of misery for patients”. Javid acknowledged “the huge pressure the NHS is facing” and conceded that “the winter is going to be particularly tough”.
Responding to Jeremy Hunt, Javid conceded there were shortages across the NHS, including among people taking 999 calls and 111 calls and in “emergency care generally”.
Announcing that parents would be able to use the vaccination booking system for their 12- to 15-year-olds to improve take-up, he said the government wanted to “make the most of half-term next week”.