The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (“JCVI”) previously advised COVID-19 vaccination of all children and adults aged 16 and over in England as well as limited groups of children aged 12 to 15 years old. It was recently announced that all children aged 12 to 15 in England will also be offered the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccination.
On 15 September 2021 the UK Health and Security Agency published guidance entitled COVID-19 vaccination programme for children and young people: guidance for schools which is available on the gov.uk website here.
The guidance has been produced to assist all school staff and heads with any questions about the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccination programme. At the same time the COVID-19 vaccination invitation letter template was published which will be adapted by local healthcare teams. It will be sent to parents of eligible children, along with an accompanying information leaflet and consent form (published by Public Health England). Schools should wait to hear from their local healthcare team (the School Age Immunisation Service (SAIS) team) who will confirm if your school will be involved in distributing or collecting these materials. Schools may also be asked to signpost parents and children to official sources of information.
The guidance confirms that your local SAIS provider team will be in contact with your school (if this has not already happened) to agree a date for the vaccination session and the best approach for implementing the programme in your school.
As schools may be used for practical purposes to administer the vaccine by the Schools Immunisation Programme, this is no different in our view to other vaccination programmes already administered and which will be familiar to schools. This is confirmed by the guidance above which states that vaccines will be administered by healthcare staff working closely with the school and following the usual approach to school-based immunisation. More information on the role schools play in the vaccination programmes is set out in the above guidance.
The UK Health and Security Agency guidance above acknowledges that some schools are receiving campaign letters and emails with misinformation about the vaccine programme. The guidance advises heads to not engage directly but may acknowledge receipt and refer to the latest scientific guidance on the issue, if needed. The guidance provides several links to trusted sources containing accurate information on COVID-19 which schools may find helpful in this regard. Our view is that no reply is likely to be needed but this should be considered on a case-by-case basis.
The guidance also advises schools concerned about protests to get in touch with the SAIS team at the first opportunity to understand what security planning they have in place, and what if any actions they recommend your school carries out ahead of vaccinations in your school.
In England, NHS guidance on immunisation in schools states that 16- and 17-year olds are presumed to have sufficient capacity to decide their own medical treatment, unless there is significant evidence to suggest otherwise.
Parental consent will be sought for pupils under the age of 16 prior to immunisation at school. Children under the age of 16 can consent to or refuse vaccination even if their parents disagree (or have not responded to a request for their consent) if they are deemed to have sufficient intelligence, competence and understanding to fully appreciate what is involved in their treatment. This is known as being Gillick competent. A parent cannot override the decision of a child who has been judged as competent to consent or refuse treatment. This is a well-established process which is used in other school-based vaccination programmes.
Whilst schools may host immunisation services, they are not legally responsible for administering vaccinations and schools should avoid any involvement in securing consent, assessing Gillick competence or mediating between parents and pupils who may disagree about whether or not to consent.
Does a school need a pupil vaccination policy?
It is not a legal requirement for a school to have a policy for pupils on vaccination and a school may, instead, distribute information to parents by their usual means of an update or FAQs. Given the legal issues and risks associated with the vaccination of children and young people, you may find a policy is helpful to explain a school’s stance on vaccination and its overall objective. The school may also find that a policy assists in handling any concerns that may arise regarding a vaccination programme. We have produced a template policy for any ISBA members.
A school’s pupil vaccination policy and/or information to parents and pupils should also address data protection and privacy issues relating to the collection and retention of vaccination data. We encourage schools to look at guidance published by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), accessible here.
Suffice it to say that at this stage we do not anticipate schools will be required or wish to collect or retain vaccination status data as a matter of course. This will be the responsibility of your local SAIS team. The UK Health Security Agency’s guidance confirms that all schools’ immunisation services are compliant with the UK General Data Protection Regulations (UK GDPR).
Schools may, of course, collect this data on an ad hoc basis as needed should, for instance, a pupil not come into school because of vaccine side effects. But generally a school should only collect the limited information required and hold it for no longer than necessary. Schools should consider whether their Privacy Notice for Parents and Pupils and Data Protection Policy need updating to factor in how this new data is handled.
For more information on how we can help schools with pupil vaccination policies or information to parents and pupils, please contact a member of our specialist Education solicitors team.