About 480,000 primary school children aged between five and 11 will be offered Covid-19 vaccines after the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) signed off on their use.
The State’s vaccine advisory body recommended to Government that the vaccines – a lower dose than the jab given to adults – should be offered to this age group.
Deliveries of the vaccine are expected to arrive into the State in the coming weeks with a full rollout to children due to begin in January.
The vaccine for children, which is about a third of the vaccine dose given to those aged 12 and over, will be given as a two-dose schedule, three weeks apart.
Niac has said children aged between five and 11 who are severely immunocompromised should be given a third dose of the vaccine at least 28 days after the second dose.
It has recommended that “before vaccination parents or guardians should be informed of the known benefits, risks and uncertainties of Covid-19 vaccination. The decision to accept, defer or refuse vaccination for a child should be respected,” it said.
The decision to offer the vaccines to this age group came as figures show a surge in Covid-19 cases among primary school children last week, despite a drop in the number of school outbreaks.
There were 7,359 cases among children aged between five and 12 in the week to December 4th, an increase of 21 per cent on the 6,077 cases reported the previous week.
Covid-19 cases among primary schoolchildren accounted for more than one in five new cases reported in the State during the week.
However, the number of coronavirus outbreaks affecting children declined during the week. There were 38 outbreaks, including 30 in schools and eight in childcare facilities, down from 51 the previous week, comprising 45 in schools and six in childcare facilities.
There were 131 new cases relating to the newly reported school outbreaks and 53 cases relating to childcare facility outbreaks. The number of cases ranged up to 18 cases in individual schools and between two and 15 cases in individual childcare facilities.
Since the fourth wave of the pandemic began in June, there have been just over 50,000 cases among children aged between five and 12 years of age - the largest age group of unvaccinated people.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) has for some time been preparing a plan for the rollout of the vaccines to children but had been awaiting guidance from Niac before it put the plan into operation.
Niac met on Monday evening to discuss the next phase of the vaccine rollout.
The Department of Health and the HSE will now work to put these updates into operation.
Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said that Niac had strongly recommended that the vaccines be given first to children with an underlying condition and those who are living with a younger child with complex medical needs or with an immunocompromised adult.
Niac advised that these three categories should be prioritised for vaccination at the same time as others aged between 16 and 49 with underlying medical conditions.
It has recommended to Government that these vaccinations should be offered to the children with the same priority as booster doses for those under the age of 40.
The HSE is currently offering booster and third doses to people aged 60 years and over, healthcare workers and people with weakened immune systems and underlying conditions.
The rollout of the booster doses to people aged between 50 and 59 is expected to begin on Thursday.
The HSE had been awaiting guidance from Niac on the first vaccine doses for children before deciding on when people aged between 40 and 49 would receive their booster jabs.
Mr Donnelly said “we have seen a significant increase” in confirmed Covid-19 cases in the 5-12 year old age group.
“While we know that most children will experience a very mild form of this disease if they pick it up, for a small few they may become severely ill. Extending the possibility of vaccination to this age group offers another layer of protection to our children and to those around them.”
The Taoiseach said following the Niac recommendation, a comprehensive plan and information campaign will be launched by the HSE and Department of Health.
More than 93 per cent of the adult population has been vaccinated with initial doses. The HSE has administered more than a million booster jabs since the start of the rollout.
The national Covid-19 average last week was 718.4 cases per 100,000, the highest level it has been since last January. There were 223,933 tests carried out leading to a positivity rate of 14.7 per cent.
There were 34,208 cases and most were in younger age category. Both the mean and median ages were 31. Those aged over 65 accounted for just 5 per cent of cases.
Carlow had the highest rate of Covid-19 in the country (1,361.3 per 100,000), followed by Westmeath (1,019.5) and Louth (886.1). The counties with the lowest rates were Mayo (541.0) and Limerick (511.5).
The National SARS-CoV-2 Wastewater Surveillance Programme (NWSP) has detected Covid-19 in all 67 sewage works around the country which are being monitored for signs of the virus.