School Aged Immunisation Service will be legally responsible for the rollout.
The Government announced on 13 September its decision to offer the Covid vaccine to all children aged 12 to 15. Since then, schools and academy trusts have found themselves in the middle of a debate as to whether the programme, which will largely take place in schools, is in the best interests of children. Many schools and trusts have received letters and emails from campaigning groups warning that head teachers may be held personally liable if harm arises to a child from vaccination at school, or if vaccination goes ahead without parental consent.
The Government has now published guidance for schools on the covid-19 vaccination programme for children and young people. This guidance makes clear that the programme will be run in the same way as other immunisation programmes for this age group, through the School Aged Immunisation Service (SAIS).
How involved will schools be in the vaccination rollout?
There are likely to be variations in the way SAIS teams in each area administer and run the rollout. However, in all cases the SAIS should work closely with schools and trusts in order to make plans for the vaccination programme, including the logistics of vaccinating children at a school venue and in school time. The guidance suggests that schools may be asked to disseminate the relevant information leaflets and to provide to the SAIS a list of eligible children. They may also be asked to assist with sending out consent forms to parents and guardians. In some cases, however, the usual SAIS online consent process will be followed, in which case schools will have even less involvement in these administrative steps.
Parents will be asked to provide consent to vaccination in the first instance. If there is a disagreement between parent and child, the child can consent to the vaccine if they are “Gillick competent”, in other words is able to understand fully what is involved in the medical procedure. The guidance makes very clear that schools will not be required to secure parental / child consent, to make decisions about whether a child is Gillick competent, or to mediate between parents and children if they disagree about whether the child should have the vaccine. It will be the SAIS which is responsible for these processes.
Could schools and school staff be personally liable for harm arising from the vaccine?
The guidance offers reassurance that the SAIS will have legal and contractual responsibility for delivery of the vaccination programme in schools.
Given that the Government has followed the recommendation of the Chief Medical Officers in offering the Covid vaccine to this age group, and that the SAIS will be responsible for making decisions concerning vaccination of individual children, it is highly unlikely that a particular school, academy trust, individual employee or trustee would be found to be liable for any harm arising from vaccination carried out at school.
However, that is not to say that parents may not try to bring such a claim. In such a case, schools and trusts should contact their insurers. Individual staff receiving allegations that they are personally liable for harm to a particular child may wish to take their own advice, for example from their union.
Avoiding stigma and less favourable treatment based on vaccination status
The vaccine is not mandatory and schools will of course need to be prepared to deal equitably with vaccinated and unvaccinated children and to be sensitive about the reasons behind consent decisions. Schools should consider their data protection obligations. Vaccine status will be special category data for the purposes of the UK GDPR and information about a child's vaccine status should not be shared without having the proper lawful bases to do so.
It will be important to ensure that unvaccinated children are not stigmatised or treated less favourably because of their vaccine status. Parents may seek to bring claims on behalf of their children for discrimination (for example on the grounds of belief or disability), alleging that their child was subjected to detrimental treatment because they decided not to have the vaccine.
How should schools deal with communications from campaign groups, complaints and protests?
The guidance offers some advice on dealing with pressure from campaign groups and protests outside schools. It suggests that engaging with anonymous correspondents and campaigning groups may simply encourage further communications. It recommends that schools communicate with the SAIS team who will be able to advise on security procedures. Schools are advised to alert the SAIS provider, the Local Authority and their police contacts to discuss the best way safely to manage planned protests or disruptive activity.
If formal complaints are received from parents about school involvement in the programme or about the conduct of school staff, these should be dealt with under the relevant complaints policy. Where the complaints involve decisions or actions of the SAIS, parents should be referred to the relevant SAIS contact.
Schools are to some extent being caught in the crossfire in an emotional and divisive issue. It will be important to maintain a balanced view, to maintain good lines of communication with parents and children, and to ensure that appropriate procedures are followed. Taking legal advice at an early stage on communications and complaints can provide schools and trusts with the confidence to respond (where necessary) in measured and informed way.
The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.