What happens if parents can’t agree about their children having standard NHS vaccinations, or the coronavirus vaccine if children become eligible?

Across the world, the roll out of the coronavirus vaccination continues apace, with priority being given to those who are most vulnerable, ie the elderly, those who are clinically extremely vulnerable and those who cannot self-isolate and are at increased risk of transmission, such as healthcare professionals. In the United Kingdom, the vaccination is intended to offer protection to the adult population, though trials for some of the vaccinations have included children aged 5 to 12 or 12 and over (Moderna/Pfizer/Oxford). So far, and in spite of some speculation, the government is reporting a high take-up by those being offered the vaccine.

Last week, the press reported that Israel is offering the vaccination to its population of 16 to 18 year olds, in order to offer them protection and confidence during their forthcoming national examination period. At present, in the United Kingdom, we don’t know if the government will broaden the list of recipients to include minors aged under 18 – currently those aged 16 and over who are considered extremely clinically vulnerable are eligible.

In this blog, we consider briefly what you can do if you and your child’s other parent disagree about your children’s vaccinations generally, whether it be the standard vaccinations offered to all children by the NHS, those recommended before you travel to particular destinations, or should the coronavirus vaccine become available for children.

Somewhat fortuitously, the family court in the past year has given two judgments that address what options parents have if they cannot agree concerning their children’s vaccinations? Here are the headlines:

  • There is actually no legal requirement for parents in the UK to ensure their children receive vaccinations. That said, it is considered a routine and responsible step and it would be unusual for parents to opt against the standard NHS vaccination programme.

  • If both parents have parental responsibility, then decisions about vaccinations need to be made jointly. If parents cannot agree, they can make an application to the family court and ask the court to decide for them – this is known as a ‘specific issue’ application.

  • Until recently, concerns over the MMR vaccine and its safety have, to a limited extent, persisted. In the court judgments published last year, the judges refer to two very large and recently reported studies that demonstrate clearly that there is no correlation whatsoever between receiving the MMR vaccination and autism. The court is satisfied that it no longer needs to have an expert appointed by the parents in each case to come and give evidence about this. Instead, the court can rely on the accepted and accessible results of these very broad studies involving hundreds of thousands of children.

  • The court will listen to parents’ concerns about vaccinations as part of wider considerations it must take account of. This forms part of the court’s statutory obligations because of the relevant Act of Parliament, known as the Children Act 1989. In particular, a judge must pay regard to what is known as the ‘welfare checklist’. This checklist includes factors such as the ascertainable wishes and feelings of the children, their holistic needs, any characteristics of the child the court should take into particular account, such as their age, sex, background and health etc, any harm the chid has suffered or is at risk of suffering and the capability of their parents to meet their needs. Overall, though, the court makes clear that absent any special or extraordinary reasons, such as a child with a particular medical condition, it would expect to provide that children are vaccinated as per the NHS programme. The court anticipated that the same approach would extend to any coronavirus vaccines rolled out for children that have been rigorously tested, appropriately peer-reviewed and assessed as safe.

If you feel you cannot agree over vaccinations, try to be creative. If you have concerns over safety, you could always agree, before making a court application, to first visit your GP together to discuss concerns or otherwise to approach a specialist immunologist who could explain things clearly. Rather than apply to the court, it would be possible to do this directly, or if you felt you needed more professional support, you could consider doing this with the help of a mediator, or within the process or arbitration, for example. Speaking to a solicitor who can come up with creative ideas that allow you to express your views and come to an ultimately informed and mutually acceptable parenting decision is worthwhile for all concerned.

If the issues in this blog affect you, and you would like to discuss the legal position in relation to vaccinations of children in any more detail, do please contact any of our specialist children lawyers.

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