Health secretary seeks advice on school immunisation plan

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Health secretary Matt Hancock has mooted plans for compulsory MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccinations for children attending state schools in a bid to turn around five years of declining uptake.

Speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, Matt Hancock expressed his concern at decreasing vaccination rates in the UK and the recent rise in measles cases.

He said he was considering the compulsory vaccination programme as a possible solution and has been given advice on how it might work in practice.

However, there is confusion after Number 10 told The Guardian newspaper that refusing admissions to non-vaccinated pupils was not currently on the table.

Instead, Downing Street says the immediate focus is on other strategies including making GP appointments easier to obtain and keeping better records of non-vaccinated children.

In other countries, a number of vaccines are compulsory, with children not allowed to attend state schools or nurseries if they have not received them. Last year, for example, France increased the number of compulsory vaccines from three to 11, including MMR.

Childhood Vaccination Coverage Statistics published by NHS Digital for England last month and covering 2018/19 show that MMR vaccine rates have fallen for the fifth year in a row from 91.2 per cent of children aged 24 months to 90.3 per cent.

There has also been a fall in vaccination rates against 13 different diseases, including whooping cough, diphtheria and meningitis at age 12 months, 24 months and five years.

Unicef figures published in April suggested that more than 525,000 UK children went unvaccinated against measles between 2010 and 2017.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation has withdrawn the UK’s measles-free status after recent outbreaks (vaccine coverage of 95 per cent is generally needed to stop outbreaks).

Mr Hancock has previously spoken about the possibility of compulsory vaccination. Four months ago he told BBC Radio 4 that people who campaign against vaccination are “campaigning against science” and said he would “consider all options”.

His latest comments came as he responded to a question at a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference.

Mr Hancock is reported as saying: “I have received advice inside government … on how we might go about it and I’m looking very seriously. I’ve said before that we should be open minded

“I think there’s a very strong argument for having compulsory vaccinations for children for when they go to school. Because otherwise they’re putting other children at risk.”

Mr Hancock added that any system would have to take into account children who cannot be vaccinated or those whose families object for religious reasons, but he said this number was tiny compared to the “seven or eight now who don’t get vaccinated”.

Commenting on the proposal, the National Association of Head Teachers said that parental education should be the priority ahead of burdening schools with yet another duty.

General secretary Paul Whiteman added: “The important thing in this case is that we should follow the science and take the lead from medical professionals. The science clearly shows that immunisation is vital to prevent infection, however immunisation rates have fallen.

“Before this issue becomes yet another one laid at school’s front door to solve, we would like to see more done to inform families about the need for children to be vaccinated. If this campaign was successful, it would be unnecessary for schools to police the system, which is surely better for everyone.”

Further information

  • Over 20 million children worldwide missed out on measles vaccine annually in past 8 years, creating a pathway to current global outbreaks, Unicef, April 2019: https://uni.cf/2om313A
  • Childhood Vaccination Coverage Statistics: England 2018-19, NHS Digital, September 2019: http://bit.ly/2mU9jqU
  • No plan to require vaccinations at state schools, says No 10, Guardian, September 2019: http://bit.ly/2nGx5XH


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