Children with serious medical conditions left in limbo amid confusion over COVID-19 vaccines
By Emma Batha
LONDON, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Britain's children return to school next week as the country eases its third lockdown, six-year-old Daniel Meredith will not be joining his friends but will remain shut indoors with no end date in sight.
Daniel has complex medical conditions which could make a COVID-19 infection fatal but there is no vaccine available for children yet, leaving thousands of families with little option but to continue shielding.
"We really do feel like the forgotten people," Daniel's mother Sara Meredith, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"Our lives are based around fear."
Britain, which has launched one of the world's fastest vaccine roll-outs, has prioritised inoculations for clinically vulnerable adults.
But with paediatric trials only just getting under way, vulnerable children could have a long wait.
Disability charity Contact said 61,800 children in Britain were at high risk of complications from COVID-19.
Some have been confined to their homes since before the first lockdown began in March last year.
The pandemic has claimed more than 123,000 lives in Britain, one of the world's worst hit countries.
But with over 20 million people now inoculated, restrictions on socialising could begin to ease later this month.
Family reunions are not on the cards for Daniel, however.
Meredith, 44, said her son missed his grown-up sisters and carers, who have been unable to visit them in Walsall, central England, for a year.
"This has had a massive impact on him. He doesn't understand about COVID. He sees it as nobody wants him," she said.
"Daniel loved school and was thriving. But I cannot see him going back this year."
The lockdown has been particularly grueling for parents of children requiring round-the-clock care like Daniel, whose fluid levels need to be managed day and night.
Close to tears with exhaustion, Meredith said the family used to get help from outside carers so she and her husband could catch up on sleep during the day, but it was too risky to have them in the house now.
The University of Oxford said it was beginning trials of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine on children aged over six in a study that will run until September 2022, but results could be available this year.
Pfizer and BioNTech are already evaluating results from trials of their vaccine on 12- to 15-year-olds. Studies in over-fives are set for the coming months, and under-fives later in the year.
The British government says most children are unlikely to get ill from COVID-19, but in very exceptional circumstances doctors may give a vaccine "off-licence" to high risk teenagers.
But parents who have tried to get their children immunised said they had been sent around in circles.
London company director Yvonne Woodford has battled for weeks to get a vaccine for her 13-year-old daughter Katherine, who has Down's Syndrome and a respiratory condition requiring her to use a ventilator at night.
She said Katherine's paediatrician had said she should have the jab and their local doctor could provide it. But their doctor, who initially also assumed he could give the vaccine, later informed her he was not authorised to do so.
In a desperate bid to cut through the red tape, Woodford took Katherine to her own vaccination appointment, armed with the paediatrician's letter.
The centre told her they would be shut down if they vaccinated Katherine.
Woodford is now pushing to get the issue raised in parliament.
"All the doctors and consultants who know Katherine think she should have it, but at the moment there's no way of it being given to her," said the mother-of three.
The health department could not immediately say who, if anyone, was authorised to give the vaccine "off-licence". Britain's national health service and paediatric body also could not shed light on this.
Lockdown has not only impacted Katherine's schooling, but also her health because she cannot go outdoors to exercise.
"We've shut down as much as we possibly can. We don't see anyone," said Woodford, who has to keep an all-night vigil by her daughter's bed several times a week after cutting back on outside carers.
The situation has also impacted her two sons who have remained largely cooped up indoors even when restrictions have been eased.
"It's very worrying and absolutely exhausting," Woodford said. "How long can you expect families to go on like this?"
Her frustrations are shared by Julie Nixon, a mother-of-six who also fosters three boys with severe learning disabilities and complex medical conditions at her home on the south coast. Doctors say the oldest, James, would not survive COVID-19.
"Until he has his vaccine our life can't resume. We're absolutely desperate for it," said Nixon, 53, who has been honoured by the Queen for her work in caring for children with disabilities.
She worries about the longterm impact on the physical health of her foster sons, who have missed important medical appointments and physiotherapy normally provided by their school.
James has outgrown his spinal jacket, but Nixon cannot risk taking him to hospital to get a new one fitted.
She has also kept her own school-age children off school for fear they could bring the virus home.
"They have seen no friends, they have not been out and about, and I worry about their mental health," Nixon said.
"Everyone in Britain is hanging on for the light at the end of the tunnel now, but there's no light for us yet."
(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Editing by Belinda Goldsmith Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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