Even before Nicki Minaj tweeted about the size of her cousin’s friend’s balls, last week was an eventful one for news about the COVID-19 vaccine. Almost 50 million people in the UK have so far received their first dose, additional booster jabs are planned for the most vulnerable, and, on Tuesday afternoon, Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Chris Whitty recommended that a single dose of the Pfizer vaccine should be offered to 12-15 year-olds. According to CMO models, this latest move means that as many as 30,000 infections could be prevented between this October and next March.
It’s no secret that children and young people are among those most deeply affected by the pandemic and our government’s response to it. Most media coverage, however, hasn’t addressed the detrimental effect that the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns has had on teenagers’ health and development. Instead, they’ve been warned not to spread the virus and “kill granny”.
Now that they’re being given their shot to help fight the virus, VICE asked a bunch of 15 and 14-year-olds how they feel about the vaccine rollout in their age group. All names have been changed to protect their identities.
“I think during the start of the pandemic it was important to vaccinate elderly, disabled and at-risk people,” says Lisa from Buckingham, “but I’m glad the vaccine is now being offered to teenagers, because outbreaks in school are really messing up our education. I have a crippling fear of needles, but if it means I won’t get COVID - and potentially make someone less healthy than me really ill - then I’ll take it.”
Lisa isn’t alone in feeling conflicted between knowing the importance of vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable and wanting to minimise the disruptions to school life.
“It’s a difficult one,” says Max, a student from Gloucestershire. “Obviously we aren’t really at risk, so it makes sense we haven’t had [the vaccine] yet, but when everyone at school gets COVID and has to isolate it does affect us. I’m happy that we can get the vaccine because it means school will be more normal.”
Even though this age group is far less likely to become seriously unwell from contracting COVID than older age groups, they still get infected and can suffer long COVID. Understandably, this means that young teenagers aren’t exactly keen on getting the virus.
“I feel like people my age have been blacklisted from our own safety,” says Harry, another student from London. “I have two older sisters who have both been double vaccinated and there have definitely been more COVID cases around my peers than theirs. It’s government incompetence, really, that has caused this problem.”
This isn’t the only frustration for people in school – many cited the lack of mask-wearing in schools as a source of anxiety. “I’m quite pleased that we’re being offered [the vaccine],” says Rose, a 15-year-old from Leeds, “because it does make me feel a lot safer and better about the whole situation now mask mandates are so much more relaxed, especially in schools.”
Children between 12-15 were previously only offered the vaccine if they had a health condition or were living with someone clinically vulnerable, and some adolescents feel that the vaccine announcement is too late: “I don’t know what stopped the government from making this decision earlier, before term time restarted,” says Harry, another 15-year-old.
Others feel a bit more sanguine about being towards the back of the queue. “I don’t think that my age group being included [sooner] is an issue because we are much less at risk of being permanently affected or killed by COVID than older people,” says Sam, 15, from London, “so naturally I think they should have priority.”
All the young people interviewed were extremely enthusiastic about getting their first dose and plan to get it as soon as possible, bar one. George, 15, feels positive about more vaccinations taking place, but doesn’t know if he’ll get one: “Even though I’m unlikely to be negatively affected by COVID, the benefits of taking the jab outweigh the risks. That being said, I personally am going to wait before taking it, if I can, in case any more studies about long-term effects are released.”
The vaccines in the UK have already been assessed and approved as safe in clinical trials, though, as is the case with all vaccines, safety monitoring continues after the initial rollout. Since the 60s, there has never been a vaccine widely released to the public that had long-term side effects. What is clear is the potential long-term effect of catching COVID – something that isn’t lost on young people considering the jab.
“I definitely want to get it”, says Ali, 14, from Warwickshire, “and even if my parents said I couldn’t, I would still get it.” Ali is allowed to get it against her parent’s wishes if she wants; according to new rules, if a child and parent are of opposing views and the child is considered competent to decide, then the child will have the final say.
One thing is clear – however many children and young teens decide to take up the vaccine, the power’s back in their hands.