Children in England aged between 12 and 15 will be able to secure their Covid-19 jabs at existing vaccination centres following concerns about rollout delays.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs the national booking service will be opened up to younger teenagers to book their Covid-19 vaccinations outside of school to “make the most of half-term”.
It comes after headteachers’ unions called for vaccines to be offered to pupils in walk-in centres, as well as school, after figures revealed the scale of the low take-up of the Covid-19 jab among the cohort.
The latest attendance data from the Department for Education (DfE) shows the number of children out of school for Covid-19 related reasons in England has risen over the past fortnight.
The DfE estimates that 2.6% of all pupils – around 209,000 children – were not in class for reasons connected to coronavirus on Thursday last week.
This is up from more than 204,000 children, or 2.5% of all pupils, on September 30.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The key to bringing levels of Covid-19 infection back under control in our schools and colleges is clearly the vaccination programme for 12 to 15-year-olds but it has not been happening fast enough.
“It was painfully slow to get underway in some areas and has been beset by logistical problems, not to mention being disrupted by the irresponsible actions of anti-vaccination protesters.”
He added: “The announcement from NHS England that young people can attend vaccination drop-in centres during the half-term holiday is a big help and we hope they will do so in sufficient numbers to help slow the spread of the virus in schools and colleges.”
ASCL is also calling for funding from the Government to allow schools to install high-quality ventilation systems to further reduce infection levels.
Approximately 110,700 pupils were off for this reason, up from 102,000 on September 30, and 81,100 were off with a suspected case, down from 84,100.
About 11,200 were absent due to isolation for other reasons, down slightly from 11,400 on September 30.
A further 5,300 pupils were off due to attendance restrictions being in place to manage an outbreak, up from 4,800, and 400 did not attend as a result of school closures due to Covid-19, up from 2,000.
While the number of children missing school because of Covid-19 has risen, overall pupil attendance has increased slightly from 89.5% on September 30 to 90% on October 14.
James Bowen, director of policy for school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “We currently have record Covid-related absence in schools. The Government cannot just sit back and accept the growing numbers of cases amongst school-age children.
“We also know that staff are being affected too and that many schools are struggling to stay open with increasing numbers of teachers and support staff testing positive. We now have record numbers off with a confirmed case of Covid and it is clear that more needs to be done to control the spread.”
The NAHT is calling on the Government to accelerate the delivery of Co2 monitors to schools, as well as change the rules so that siblings of children who have tested positive do not attend class.
“If the Government does not act now, there is a clear and obvious risk that disruption to education will only get worse as we head into winter,” he warned.
Three million pupils aged between 12 and 15 across the UK are eligible to receive a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine as part of a rollout that began a month ago.
In England, jabs are being primarily carried out in schools by nurses and immunisation teams.
But on Tuesday, Mr Javid told MPs: “To make the most of half-term next week, we will now be opening up the national booking service to all 12 to 15-year-olds to have their Covid vaccinations in existing national vaccination centres, which will offer families more flexibility.
“I think it is important that anyone who is invited as eligible for a vaccine, including young people, that they do come forward and take up that offer.”
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), welcomed the announcement, but added: “More still needs to be done on ventilation in schools and other mitigation measures to stop the virus spreading and putting staff and pupils at further risk as we head into winter.”
The NEU is calling on the Government to bring back face coverings in secondary schools. “The rise in pupils absent due to a confirmed Covid diagnosis is a continuing source of alarm,” Dr Bousted said.
A DfE spokesman said: “We are committed to protecting education, which is why the safety measures in place strike a balance between managing transmission risk with regular testing and enhanced ventilation and hygiene, and reducing disruption to face-to-face learning.
“We continue to work with parents and school and college staff to maximise students’ time in the classroom.
“The vaccination programme for 12- to 15-year-olds has already reached hundreds of thousands of students, and we encourage young people to get the vaccine and continue with twice-weekly testing.”