Protect children for a challenging winter ahead

The UK must prepare now for a potential new wave of coronavirus infections this winter that could be more serious than the first, says a new report from the Academy of Medical Sciences. Responding to 'Preparing for a challenging winter', the RCPCH made the following statement on vaccinations and protecting children’s services.

Vaccinations will be crucial

Children are unlikely to become seriously ill with COVID-19 or be a major means of spreading the virus, but this is definitely not the case with influenza. Some children can become very ill and a small minority may even require intensive care. Young children are also ‘super-spreaders’ of the flu virus.

In order to protect children – and the adults with whom they come into contact – it is absolutely crucial that children from 2 years old to Year 7 in school receive the flu vaccine this autumn. Most children receive the vaccine through primary schools and could miss out if schools are not reopened. It is also important that children outside these age ranges and who are particularly vulnerable to the effects of flu receive the immunisation. Consideration should be given to doing this when children attend secondary care.

At the same time, it is more important than ever that children and young people receive their other vaccinations.

Professor Helen Bedford, immunisations lead for the College, commented:

After a welcome increase in uptake of many immunisations at the end of last year, there have been worrying dips in take-up of some of these in recent months and we are extremely concerned that any outbreak of, for example, measles or pertussis (whooping cough) could be highly dangerous to children and put even greater pressure on hospitals this winter.

Immunisation teams have been doing amazing work over the spring and summer to vaccinate children but are playing catch-up as schools vaccination programmes have faltered. It will be necessary to make extra resources available to rectify this, particularly if children are not back at school in September.

We are urging all parents and carers to make sure their children’s vaccinations are up-to-date now and to ensure their child receives the flu vaccine as soon as it becomes available.

Services for children must be protected

The report also warns of a long hangover in terms of delayed and cancelled procedures – for both adults and children. As elective surgery is stepped up, there is a real risk of damage to children’s care if we are confronted with a second peak and paediatrics is again effectively paused to support adult services. The report explicitly says that paediatric intensive care units (ICUs), theatres and recovery units should not be used as a substitute for critical care capacity, as was the case during the first peak.

Dr Simon Clark, Vice President for Policy, said:

Even without a second peak, restoring lost capacity and working through a massive backlog of cancelled procedures is an immense challenge. To go down this road a second time in 12 months would be a disaster for children and families. We know a lot more about what we’re facing than we did at the outset of the first wave. It’s vital that we use the summer months to shore up our services so that we are better able to cope.

It is likely to be a winter unlike any in recent memory. The commitment of NHS workers will not be enough on its own. The NHS needs emergency funding, extra capacity and a plan to protect non-COVID focused services. It is also not just about hospital settings. Support for children and families at local and community level are in very bad shape, particularly in disadvantaged communities. Some councils have said they will struggle to pay for even statutory services.

Now is the time to invest seriously in these services to keep people safe and healthy and help ease the pressure on primary care and A&E. Similarly, core services in health visiting and community paediatrics must be built back up and stay in place, even in the event of a second peak.  

The prospect of going through a second wave is bleak. But with planning and a commitment to properly resource the NHS we can manage it in a more effective, coordinated and sustainable way. As this report says, we have a very narrow window to get this right and there is no time to waste.