Why a successful vaccine can’t come soon enough for vulnerable families

Tom McBride
Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The announcement from Pfizer and their partner BioNtech on Monday, detailing positive early-stage data from their trial of a Covid-19 vaccine has unsurprisingly generated huge media interest.

For so many children and families facing new and heightened challenges caused by the pandemic, lockdowns and the pressures they have caused, it’s a precious sign of progress.  

We might consider vaccines to be the earliest form of intervention, a highly effective approach that protects people from debilitating and life-threatening illness, so this potentially very important update is exciting.

But amongst the excitement that this might signal the beginning of the end for the pandemic, there has rightly been many from the scientific community, and beyond, pointing out that these are preliminary results, which need much more analysis.

We also don’t yet understand the long-term effectiveness or side-effects of the vaccine – just as we have likely yet to see the full impact of the pandemic and lockdowns on families, local councils and public services reveal itself. 

Of course, it’s right to ask questions about how quickly vaccines are being developed and whether they are being given sufficient scrutiny to ensure they are safe and effective before they are rolled out.

An ineffective or dangerous vaccine would almost certainly push more towards the propaganda of the anti vax movement, whose mobilisation to discredit the recent research is as depressing as it is inevitable. However, we need to acknowledge that without a vaccine the pandemic will continue to exact an enormous toll on children and families. Simply saying we should continue with current social distancing measures isn’t good enough.    

In the absence of a vaccine the main tool that public health officials have is social distancing, encouraging people to work from home, shutting pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops, preventing mixing between households and in extreme cases shutting schools.

Without such approaches even advanced and well-funded health systems like the UK’s are overwhelmed, creating strain on the system, pressure on key workers and diverting resources away from other crucial areas. Even the relatively modest relaxation of lockdown over the summer and autumn have been associated with a large increase in cases and hospital admissions.  

But social distancing increases pressure on families. It also has a huge impact on the economy and the longer it is maintained the more young people will see their job prospects diminish.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the sort of conditions in which pernicious and enormously damaging issues such parental conflict, child abuse and neglect, mental health difficulties and domestic abuse will flourish.

Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman pointed out last week emerging data on the increase in non-accidental injury and deaths amongst children since the lockdown.

And while services have worked hard to stay in touch with families, the lack of regular contact and home visiting means that the subtler signs of abuse, neglect or domestic violence, for example, are simply much harder to spot.  

As well as increasing pressure on families, many of whom were struggling before the pandemic, Covid will impact directly on children and young people.

Although they are unlikely to fall seriously ill from the infection, maintaining social distancing and dealing with issues such as school closures and uncertainty around exams will inevitably take its toll on their mental health. The latest data shows mental health problems rising amongst adolescents, and we know that schools are working hard to support children’s mental wellbeing as they have been settling back into the classroom.  

It’s crucial that we all adhere to social distancing over the coming months so that we can protect the most vulnerable. But this is not a long-term solution. 

No one wants to see a vaccine rushed out prematurely, but the pandemic has, and will continue to have, disproportionate impact on some of the most vulnerable and marginalised within our society. Resources must be made available to services at all levels to support families affected by Covid-19 – but for now, these services are working with a heavy headwind. 

So, let us hope that this and the work of other research groups around the world is a first step towards tackling Covid-19 at root, and that we can begin to address in a sustainable way the damage to children and families that this pandemic has already caused.  

Tom McBride is director of evidence at the Early Intervention Foundation.

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