Appearing on Sky News, Nadhim Zahawi was asked why the UK has not followed in the footsteps of the European Medicines Agency, which has recommended the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine be extended to children aged 12 to 15.
Zahawi replied: “Our own regulator has not yet approved giving vaccines to children.
“You have to make sure the vaccines are incredibly safe before you give them to children.”
Zahawi said the Pfizer jab has also been approved by regulators in the United States and Canada for use on 12 to 15-year-olds.
He said the UK’s own Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises UK health departments on immunisation, would have to look “very carefully” at the issue.
Experts have said deciding whether to give children jabs is a question that requires balancing the wider benefits against the direct ones for youngsters.
Zahawi explained that while some children can get infected or develop long COVID, “on the whole you are vaccinating to protect their families and their communities and the country.”
He added: “So the vaccines… have to be incredibly safe before you administer them to children.”
He said the “infrastructure” is in place to jab children in the UK if required, but “clinicians have to make that final decision.”
JCVI member Maggie Wearmouth told LBC that it had “only recently” received a written request from Health Secretary Matt Hancock to look at the issue of vaccinating children.
She declined to give a specific date on when the JCVI was written to, adding: “We have not formulated a response yet, put it that way.”
She said: “We have had one or two conversations but we have not formulated a formal view.”
Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the JCVI, said on Saturday it is likely to set out a “range of options” for the Government on the potential immunisation of children.
He said experts need to weigh up ethical issues when considering options such as immunising children on the basis of risk, for educational purposes or to protect others in the population.
Harnden said vaccines do help with COVID-19 transmission but “only to a certain extent”, and therefore “I don’t think we will be able to vaccinate children to prevent huge amounts of transmission within the community.”
Professor Peter Openshaw, from Imperial College London and a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), which advises the Government, said the emergence of new coronavirus variants could influence the decision on whether to vaccinate children.
Speaking to Times Radio in a personal capacity, he said there are “debates” about the possible risks of “very, very rare complications” associated with vaccination, which had to be balanced against the “certainty” that someone can get “very severe complications” by catching COVID.
He added: “It may well be that actually giving children vaccines will become a clearer option once we know more about the disease in children and whether the new variants are spreading further into the pediatric population and causing more significant disease. That could certainly change the risk-benefit ratio.”
Openshaw said the UK has placed an emphasis on “public health benefits” and therefore “vaccinating those who may be transmitting disease, sometimes unknowingly, is a perfectly good justification for vaccination.”
He added: “The new variants extending further down the age range and being of quite high prevalence even in children as young as four, it may be that actually children and school children are going to be a more important part of the transmission chain as the virus becomes more transmissible as new variants arise.
“The benefits might change and that might affect the decision about whether to vaccinate children in the future.”
By Tom Pilgrim