Today
Fri 17 September 2021

England’s vaccine strategy is endangering the young, says Mike Buckley

The Government is treating the pandemic as effectively all but past, despite rising case numbers and deaths. At the time of writing, the UK has the highest number of daily cases in Europe and the second highest number of deaths – after Russia – but among the lowest restrictions. 

Most rules ended on 19 July, at least in England. The last to go – the need to self–isolate after coming into contact with an infectious person – ends this week for double vaccinated people. 

This combination of high infection rates and absent restrictions puts the entire population at risk. Even double vaccinated people can become infected, a small proportion of whom will become severely ill or worse. Many will pass on the infection to others. 

The good news is this does not mean vaccines are ineffective, but it is a reminder that no vaccine is perfect and it proves what many scientists have known all along: vaccines alone are not enough. 

To return to normality safely we “need a multipronged approach,” says Dr Deepti Gurdasani, a clinical epidemiologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, that includes vaccines and non–pharmaceutical interventions – masks, ventilation and isolation of people exposed to the virus. Anything else leaves vulnerable groups including older people, people with some disabilities, those unable to take vaccines and the yet-to-be vaccinated – including children – at needless and unacceptable risk. 

The Government is the exception when it comes to refusing to recognise the need for interventions other than vaccines. Many other governments began to invest in ventilation, robust isolation regimes and adequate sick pay – which enables people to isolate when needed – in early 2020.

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The US Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), for example, recommends “a layered approach to reduce exposures to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19” including “building ventilation, physical distancingwearing face maskshand hygiene, and vaccination.” For the CDC vaccination is but one tool, not the magic bullet it is presented as in Britain. 

The Government can see case numbers rising. The administration knows which groups are at risk and is well aware of the syndrome, Long Covid, a condition in which symptoms persist long after the virus has left the body. Yet it refuses to act, and nobody knows why.

Some believe Prime Minister Boris Johnson is unwilling to keep restrictions in place because he lacks support among Conservative MPs and refuses to rely on Opposition votes. With growing rumours that Conservative MPs have tired of Johnson’s gaffes, he may believe he cannot risk going against them, whatever the cost to public health. 

Others think he is unwilling to spend the money required to make public venues safe and or require businesses to do so. Installing adequate ventilation in public buildings would create safe environments and have economic as well as health benefits as people felt able to return to workplaces, shops and hospitality. Benefits would far outweigh costs, but unlike in other nations, such as Canada, ventilation barely gets a mention. 

Others believe the Government has been influenced by one or more fringe groups who go against mainstream scientific opinion. 

“There are people out there who think infection is a good thing,” Adam Hamdy, a writer and vocal critic of the Government’s response to the pandemic, tells Byline Times. “They haven’t provided any evidence to back up their belief, they expect it to be taken as fact. There are others who don’t care whether infection is good or bad, they just want to get on with life.”

He believes the Government have been “unduly influenced by people who fall into one or other of these categories [and who] do not have our best interests at heart.” 


There is ample evidence that groups who support ‘fringe science’ have lobbied the Government to remove restrictions. A group purporting to represent the interests of children, UsForThem, argued in February 2021 that mitigations were “damaging”. The group is thought to have met with senior ministers. 

Posts on the website of Health Advisory and Recovery Team (HART) question the effectiveness of vaccines, lockdowns and public health data. The fact-checking charity, Full Fact, has analysed a number of claims made by the organisation and found them to be misleading.

Without a clear admission from Johnson or one of his Ministers we can only guess at the access these groups have been given, and the extent to which their fringe ideas have influenced policy. However, we can judge the Government on its actions and communication strategy.

The removal of restrictions amid high case numbers, despite the consequent loss of life, hospitalisations and additional cases of Long Covid is one indication the Government may be following flawed science. Not only are they acting against international norms, but they are also failing to follow the advice of UK experts including members of their own advisory groups. 

There are additional concerns about official communications by Government and agencies. For example, Public Health England, an executive agency which is part of the Department of Health and Social Care, has described rising case numbers as “stable” and continue to claim vaccines are “breaking the link between infections and serious illness” despite rising deaths. 

But it is the Government’s attitude to children that is of most concern to many scientists. Unlike other nations the Government are still refusing to vaccinate teenagers or children. There are no plans to reintroduce protections in schools when they return in September. Yet the evidence of harm to children, as well as their ability to spread infections to other family members, is clear.

Professor Christina Pagel, clinical research director at University College London and an influential member of Independent SAGE, a group of scientists working together to give advice to government and the public, tweeted on 10 August: “It would be one thing to not offer vaccination to kids if we protected them through low community rates and safer schools. But we’re not. We’re denying them protection by vax or anything else  – instead, we’re basically saying we don’t care if they get Covid.”

Wave four of COVID will be a pandemic of misinformation , under-vaccination and inadequate mitigating public health interventions

Dr Katharine Smart

Five in every 100,000 child infections result in death; small numbers perhaps, but as Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), told a US Senate hearing in July 2021: “Children are not supposed to die.” 

One in 200 children with the Delta variant are hospitalised. Between 7% and 13% of infected children and teens, depending on age, have Long Covid symptoms for many weeks. According to Christina Pagel, thousands of children have been unwell for over a year

Dr Gurdasani believes the Government has continually downplayed the danger children face from COVID-19, helped by some senior scientists who are either wrong or have chosen to follow the Government line. 

“Our scientific leadership is minimising very real evidence on risk to kids, quoting misleading stats and flawed studies that fit with their narrative,” she says. “Other countries [are] taking the threat of Delta to children seriously while the UK remains in denial.” 

When other nations recognised the risk of severe disease and of Long Covid early on, many using the first lockdown and summer 2020 to make schools safe by investing in ventilation and distancing measures, the Government here did little or nothing. When schools did return there was no additional ventilation. What measures were in place, including bubbles, isolation and some mask-wearing were gradually removed over the spring. Even in place they were insufficient to prevent huge spikes in infection. 

More recently two studies funded by the Department for Health and Social Care have been used to argue that the risk to children remains low despite all evidence to the contrary. 

The first, led by researchers at King’s College London, was widely reported as proof that children “rarely experience long–term symptoms, with most recovering in less than a week.” 

Yet the study based its findings solely on data from the Zoe app, known to be an “outlier of prevalence estimates in adults,” says Elaine Maxwell of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR). “It is not a surprise their estimate in children is low.”

The study was not only inaccurate, contradicting official Office for National Statistics (ONS) data, it was dangerous, says Frances Simpson of campaign group Long Covid Kids. By offering “false reassurance to parents [it] may result in an increase in infections and harm to children, [and] could be dangerous due to [its] limitations and reach in the media.” 

A second study from Oxford University claimed to prove that daily testing is as effective as isolation in preventing transmission in schools, but “failed to show convincing reductions in school absence and could not rule out large increases in transmission,” says Jon Deeks, Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Birmingham. The study admitted it missed around half of infected contacts. 

In addition, the Government has been accused of misrepresenting its own data to downplay the need for in-school mitigations. A small study, which ran in 11 local authorities in the late spring of 2021, when cases were relatively low, was presented on the Government website as evidence that mitigations are unnecessary, says Christina Pagel, despite the data not being intended for that purpose.

At the same time, the Government ignores more robust studies from the UK and overseas which prove both serious risks to children and the effectiveness of mitigations including vaccinations, masks, distancing and ventilation. 

An American study by Duke University, for example, which gathered evidence from over a million pupils over a year, found universal masking a close second to vaccination as the best way to prevent COVID–19. Other studies and governments recommend and use ventilation, distancing and bubbles. The Government could learn from and follow such studies and evidence. Instead it downplays risk and refuses to act.

In doing so the Government puts all of us at risk. The fourth wave, says Canadian paediatrician Katharine Smart, “will be a pandemic of misinformation, under-vaccination and inadequate mitigating public health interventions.” The premature removal of mask mandates, a failure to address the need for school ventilation and or implement other proven safety measures will, she says, needlessly extend the pandemic. 

Smart believes that children will pay the price. Mortality “is a crude outcome measure in paediatrics. What about disability, medical trauma, impact on families, mental health? These things are real and the impacts lifelong. Preventable death/disability should not be acceptable.” 

She calls on politicians to base their decisions on accurate science and a desire to protect the vulnerable, especially children.

“We have the solutions: increase [the number of] fully vaccinated with all the levers we have, [including] mandatory vaccines, vaccine passports, address structural barriers [such as] paid sick days, pop up clinics, whatever it takes. Keep masking in indoor space. Ventilate schools properly.” 

“Personal responsibility doesn’t work in a pandemic,” says Dr Gurdasani. “We cannot help parents protect their children without the right policies in place. And the tragedy of what’s unfolding is unbearable.”

Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’

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