Northern Ireland news

Covid vaccines to be rolled out to under-16s as one in ten children missed school last week

The Covid-19 vaccination programme will be extended to almost 100,000 children in Northern Ireland under the age of 16
David Young

COVID-19 vaccines are to be offered to 12-15 year-olds in Northern Ireland as figures show one in ten children were off school last week.

Health minister Robin Swann yesterday confirmed the extension of the mass vaccination programme to the under-16s after the UK's four chief medical officers recommended the move.

One dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab will be offered, with the rollout done mainly through a school-based programme.

Around 98,000 children will be eligible.

Infection rates in the north are currently highest among the 10-14 year age group - and have been for the past seven days.

The spike in cases among children is reflected in school absences during the second week of term, with Department of Education data revealing 88.9 per cent of pupils were in class between last Monday and Friday.

Widespread disruption was caused as thousands of pupils deemed close contacts of positive cases were sent home for PCR testing.

The latest figures show just over three per cent of pupils (equating to around10,000 children) were forced to self-isolate and work remotely - the highest level recorded since April when children returned to classrooms after lockdown.

There were also eight per cent of absences not linked to Covid in the same week.

Mr Swann said he hoped the vaccination of children and teenagers will help protect young people from catching the virus and "prevent disruption in schools by reducing transmission".

Parental consent will be sought prior to jabs being given, with necessary forms will be distributed via schools shortly.

While the majority of jabs will be delivered in schools, there will be alternative arrangements for those who are home-schooled or in secure services.

Mr Swann confirmed the school inoculation programme will be supported by GPs where necessary and that children in "at risk" groups will receive two doses of vaccine, eight weeks apart.

"I thank the UK chief medical officers for their expert advice," he said.

"Our healthcare system stands ready to extend the vaccination programme to this group with the same dedication and urgency that they have delivered all other parts of the vaccination programme."

The Public Health Agency took over contact tracing of school children last Friday, after many principals criticised the arrangements at the beginning of the new school term - in which they were mainly left to track down pupils who had come into contact with a positive case - as "unsustainable".

The move brought the north's monitoring systems in schools into line with England, Scotland and Wales.

Mr Swann and Education Minister Michelle McIlveen said they hoped the PHA would take a "more targeted approach" to contract tracing.

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