When I was 17 it wasn’t a very good year

There's a small population of prospective students that are particularly at risk from Covid-19 in the autumn.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Imagine you are 17 years old.

You turn 18 on August 31. Your A level results turned out exactly how you hoped, and you’ve got a place at your university of choice.

You move into a flat in halls with eight other people. They’re strangers now – but hopefully a few of them will become great friends. You’re looking forward studying, but also to some serious nightlife. You’ve earned it!

Even with all the excitement you are sensible enough to get your first vaccine dose before you move, and you have booked the first available date at the university health centre (mid October, 8 weeks after dose one) for the second. You know that you’ll need to wait four weeks before you are fully vaccinated – and will be treated in the same way as children for four months after that.

A couple of nights into term one of your new friends is feeling rough. She initially thinks she’s just hungover (and fresher’s flu is absolutely at thing) but she takes a Covid-19 test and it is positive. She naturally starts isolating.

Your new friends are all double vaccinated so they can carry on working and partying. But one by one they get the virus and need to isolate. As you are treated as if you are under 18 you don’t need to isolate during any of this time. You do take a few LFR tests to be sure, and for weeks they turn up negative every time.

When you eventually do get the virus, it’s a lot worse for you than any of your vaccinated friends. The vaccine seems not to be stopping people from getting the virus, but it does make it less likely to cause lasting damage. Through no fault of your own, your health is severely affected.

But what makes it worse is the suspicion that you have passed this on to friends on your course, and in other flats. You’ve not been isolating officially, so you’ve been attending in-person teaching as normal.

The sensible thing to do would be to make sure students get both vaccinations before they travel to university. Former Shadow Universities Minister Emma Hardy asked about this today – it would mean vaccinating some 17 year olds but it would hugely remove the risk from the start of term.

Gavin Williamson said it was an excellent question. He didn’t answer it. He needs to.

UPDATED Some illustrative data from the ONS this morning. I’ve plotted England only, numbers in the samples for other nations are too small for my tastes.

This shows the (modelled) proportion of people in each individual year of age between 16 and 25 with antibodies against the SARS-COV-2 virus that causes Covid-19, on 10 June. These antibodies would have been present due to either a prior infection or a vaccine – and we know from the same data set that around 25.4 per cent of English young people in the 16-24 band have had one dose of the vaccine, and around 18.2 per cent have had two doses. If that last one seems high – it relates primarily to those judged critically vulnerable or that live with someone who is.

What concerns me here is that the numbers with a vaccine aren’t that far behind the numbers with antibodies – you would perhaps assume that the waves ripping through schools would have pushed antibody rates higher but this doesn’t seem to have happened. I’m not up enough on the science to know if the vaccine is better at facilitating long-lasting antibody protection than the illness – but this feels like an important question.


One response to “When I was 17 it wasn’t a very good year

  1. This is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. While all the bells and whistles in terms of guidance are likely to look different here in Scotland (I suspect masks and some degree of physical distancing might remain a while longer), we too haven’t been vaccinating 17-year-olds, and far more young people in Scotland go to university at 17 rather than 18. Some indeed arrive at 16.

    It strikes me as singularly myopic to cling to the 18+ vaccination policy when we have thousands of 16-17 year olds slated to arrive on Scottish campuses this autumn. I know there’s only so many doses and so much time, but the Scottish government promised to focus on getting the university cohorts vaccinated, yet are still blissfully ignoring a good 10-20% of them.

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