UK polio outbreak ‘is our price for obsession with Covid’

·4 min read
The return of polio in the UK 'could be the latest example collateral damage that was entirely avoidable', said Esther McVey - Shutterstock
The return of polio in the UK 'could be the latest example collateral damage that was entirely avoidable', said Esther McVey - Shutterstock

Britain’s polio outbreak is the price for the “worldwide obsession” with Covid which led to children missing vaccines during lockdown, MPs have warned.

Placing too much focus on the Covid jab for children led to other routine inoculations being de-prioritised, according to the all-party parliamentary group (APPG) on pandemic response.

Writing for The Telegraph, Esther McVey, the group’s co-chairman, warns that the pandemic saw “one condition prioritised above all else, including life-saving vaccinations against childhood diseases”.

The former Cabinet minister argued that the return of polio in the UK “could well be the latest example of how this approach created collateral damage that was entirely avoidable”.

She added that it was “time we acknowledged that our cure has been worse than the disease, especially for children”.

Last month, health officials warned that polio was spreading in Britain for the first time in nearly 40 years, as they declared a national incident and urged people to make sure they are vaccinated.

Britain was proclaimed polio-free in 2003, with the last wild case detected in 1984, making the new outbreak the first transmission event since the 1980s.

The UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) said that a polio virus had been detected in sewage from North and East London in February.

Although this would not normally be a concern, a mutated version of the same strain was picked up again in April and May, suggesting there has been ongoing spread between individuals over several months, which has allowed the virus to evolve.

Children are routinely vaccinated against polio but official figures show thousands of children across England are not fully protected. Some 14.7 per cent (101,737) of children in England aged five had not received their polio booster by their fifth birthday in 2020-21. Around a third of all these unprotected five-year-olds – 34,105 – were in London.

Around a fifth of Year 10 children in England had not received their teenage booster in the 2020-21 academic year, according to UKHSA data (123,132 of the 625,379 total).

Ms McVey said the cases of polio are a “worrying development” but “not surprising to the many experts who have been warning of the unintended consequences of our narrow focus on Covid-19”.

She went on to say: “Last summer, we were specifically warned that children were not getting vital vaccines for cancers, meningitis and other devastating conditions such as polio. Are we now paying the price of the worldwide Covid obsession?”

Ms McVey said the Covid inquiry must examine the impact the pandemic has had on interrupting children’s routine vaccinations and the long-term implications for their health.

Last summer, Government advisers warned that "vaccination fatigue" may have caused a sharp drop in children getting routine jabs.

Minutes of a meeting of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation revealed a 20 per cent drop in the number of children being vaccinated against conditions such as meningitis and a "concerning decline" in uptake of the MMR jab.

The documents said there that may need to be a "catch-up campaign" and that pressure to get GP appointments may have caused the decline in childhood vaccines.

Other members of the APPG for pandemic response, which scrutinises the Government’s handling of Covid and the impact of emergency policies, raised concern about the polio outbreak.

Graham Stringer, the Labour MP for Blackley and Broughton and co-chairman of the APPG, said health officials needed to urgently “rebuild trust in the immunisations that children actually need”.

He said there has been a “singular focus of efforts and resources, by the NHS and Government, on promoting the Covid-19 jab for healthy children, when there are no clear benefits” and questioned whether these efforts would be “better focussed on essential childhood vaccination programmes where there are clear benefits”.

Chris Green MP, a Conservative MP and member of the group, said: “The economy, education and access to normal healthcare have all taken a huge hit, as have routine vaccinations that children would receive at school.

“It would be a terrible outcome if, by focussing on pressurising children to take a vaccine they did not need, they become vulnerable to Polio.”