Health leaders have raised concerns about a dip in vaccine coverage since the start of the pandemic but have pledged a "laser-like" focus to bring rates up again.
Health minister Maria Caulfield said that declining rates in vaccine take up were "of concern". NHS officials warned about the "worrying" dip in the number of pre-schoolers who were up to date with their vaccinations. Ms Caulfield insisted that there were no mandatory vaccination programmes planned, as seen in other countries, although she hinted that the flu jab offer would be extended this winter to include more schoolchildren.
Asked about declining rates in vaccination uptake, she told the House of Commons' Health and Social Care Committee: "Obviously, you need a certain threshold for any vaccination programme for them to be effective.
"So declining rates are a concern, but just to reassure the committee that across all our vaccination programmes, we still have one of the most extensive immunisation programmes in the world and our vaccine confidence and uptake rates are amongst the highest globally.
"So we do have some challenges, but actually, we're pretty well placed to deal with many of those."
'No Plans' to Introduce Compulsory Vaccination
Ms Caulfield was also asked about remarks made by a UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert who said that the flu jab should be offered to more schoolchildren than it currently was.
"I think the flu programme, this winter coming, without giving too much away, will probably be a different population to the one last winter," she said. "We are guided by the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) in terms of the clinical indications of that."
Asked about compulsory vaccination in other countries, she said: "I don’t think there’s a need for it, at the moment we’ve have got very high uptakes in terms of most vaccine programmes.
"And our preference is to give people the choice and to give them the information and then make it as easy as possible."
She added: "I’ll be very clear, there are no plans to bring in compulsory vaccination at all.
"We have got a successful vaccination programme.
"There’s over 12 national immunisation programmes, seven for children, two for elderly, and three adolescent programmes. And of course, all of those, we've got very high uptake, and we don't see the need for that."
83.4% Schoolchildren are Fully Vaccinated
Asked by Dr Caroline Johnson, a Conservative MP who is also a consultant paediatrician, about the fact that 83.4% of children going into school are fully vaccinated, Dr Nikki Kanani, director of clinical integration at NHS England, said: "I think this is one of the areas that we are most focused on, certainly one of the areas that we worry most about."
Dr Kanani said there were a "multitude of factors" behind vaccination uptake in schoolchildren.
"This is about families who've been disengaged for so many reasons from society, from community, the last few years; parents who quite understandably, are nervous and anxious about the wider preschool immunisation profile."
Dr Kanani said having flexible ways to vaccinate children is "really important", whether that be a community clinic, a health vistor, or school-based vaccinations.
"Our target coverage is supposed to be around 95% for targeted programmes, that’s what we’re working towards," Ms Caulfield added. "But we also have to acknowledge that there was problems before COVID in terms of a downturn, but COVID has massively impacted [vaccination uptake].
"The disruption to children, in terms of schools and the routines that people had, has meant childhood vaccinations weren't necessarily front and centre of people's minds, that's now changing.
"And so there will be a return to you know, laser-like focuses on all the vaccination programmes."
Meanwhile, she said the vaccination strategy would be published "later this year".
Some of the latest vaccine uptake figures for England, published by the UKHSA, include:
- Uptake for the first dose of the MMR vaccine, which protects against measles, mumps, and rubella, in children aged 2 years is 89% and uptake of two MMR doses in children aged 5 years is 85%, well below the target of 95%.
- Uptake of the Td/IPV (for tetanus, diphtheria, and polio) and MenACWY (which protects against disease which leads to meningitis) vaccines for children in school year 9 was 69% (in 2018/19 it was around 88%).
- HPV vaccine coverage, which helps prevent certain cancers including cervical cancer, decreased by 7% in year 8 girls and 8.7% in year 8 boys in 2021/22 when compared to the previous academic year.
- The average uptake for the maternal whooping cough vaccine in 2022 dropped to a 7-year low of 61.5%.