Britain has been slower than some other countries in offering the shots to this age group. Many EU member states began offering vaccination to all children aged five to 11 in December, but progress has been patchy, with authorities blaming hesitancy among parents and some doctors as well as mixed messaging from experts.
Spain, whose vaccination campaign is one of the bloc’s most successful – nearly 91% of the population over 12 is double jabbed, against an EU average of 71.7% (and 71.4% in the UK) – has given 56.3% of five- to 11-year-olds a first dose and is moving on to second doses.
Experts note that the pace of this rollout is slower than that of the adult vaccination programme, with an average of about 3,000 children a day being jabbed over the past week.
“There’s no denying people have become weary with the pandemic, there are doubts among parents, contradictory messages from some experts and a perception that the risks are lower for children and young people,” Amós García, of the Spanish Vaccinology Association, told El País last week.
Denmark has given about 47% of younger children at least one dose. Other countries are advancing more slowly. Barely 22% of younger children have been jabbed in Italy, compared with more than 80% of those aged 12 to 19.
Roberto Burioni, a professor of microbiology and virology at Vita-Salute San Raffaele University in Milan, said it was important for health authorities to continue to “push for a higher rate among children, since they spread the virus”.
Germany’s vaccination regulator recommends jabs against Covid-19 for all children aged 12 to 17, more than 60% of whom are fully vaccinated, but in the five to 11 cohort it has advised vaccination only for those with pre-existing health conditions.
Younger children without underlying conditions can get vaccinated if their parents wish, but there is no explicit recommendation. Of 5.3 million children in the five to 11 age group in Germany, only 13.6% have had at least one shot of vaccine so far.
France, which is also in the EU’s leading group for vaccination in adults and older children, with more than 77% of the total population double jabbed, has made even slower progress with younger children: less than 5% have received a first dose.
“The individual benefit for children is so significant that we really have to go much further, much faster, much stronger” the health minister, Olivier Véran, said this month during a video conference with family doctors and paediatricians.
Experts point to hesitancy among parents, with opinion polls showing as many as 60% of those with younger children are reluctant to vaccinate five- to 11-year-olds. Official messaging in the first wave of the pandemic that children were not at serious risk from the virus and did not play a role in spreading it has not helped.
Throughout France’s recent double coronavirus wave – fuelled by the Delta and Omicron variants – children have often been the most infected age group and schools the greatest single source of contamination.
While they remain at far lower risk of serious illness or death than adults, more than 7% of all six- to 10-year-olds in France were infected with coronavirus every week in January and early February, data shows, and more than 100 children aged nine and under were in intensive care with Covid-19.
“We need to urgently review the messaging,” said Sydney Sebban, a paediatrician. “Convince parents that Omicron is absolutely not anodyne, that unvaccinated children can develop very severe forms, and that even if they have had Covid, getting vaccinated gives them longer-term protection against a future variant.”
A few EU countries have decided not to offer vaccines to younger children. Sweden’s health agency announced at the end of last month that it had decided against recommending vaccines for five- to 11-year-olds because it said the benefits did not outweigh the risks.
“With the knowledge we have today, a low risk for serious disease for kids, we don’t see any clear benefit,” said an agency official, Britta Bjorkholm, adding that the decision would be reviewed if the data changed or a new variant emerged, and that children in high-risk groups would still be advised to get vaccinated.
Outside Europe, the US has vaccinated about 10 million five- to 11-year-olds. The Food and Drug Administration has delayed until April a decision on whether to approve the Pfizer/BioNTech shot for children between six months and four years of age, saying it wanted to wait for more data from clinical trials.
Additional reporting by Philip Oltermann, Sam Jones and Angela Giuffrida