The NHS is paying private companies to vaccinate 12 to 15 year olds – but fewer than half have been jabbed.
It was announced this week that this age group would be offered a second dose amid fears about the omicron variant.
But it's likely to be April before the majority are fully protected because only 1.2 million of the three million eligible children have had one dose – the equivalent of 40 percent.
Experts fear the decision to pay private firms millions to jab hundreds of thousands of children in this cohort has actually slowed the process down.
Dr David Strain, from the University of Exeter's medical school, said: "There have been places where pools of students have been handed over to private companies and very little vaccination is taking place.
“It is very clear that not all children are going to be vaccinated by the end of January."
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This puts children at risk of developing complications from the virus – and passing it onto elderly and more vulnerable relatives over Christmas.
Anthony Costello, Professor of International Child Health at University College London, said: "I think this idea that it's a totally trivial illness in children is simply not true.
"It can cause kidney failure and death. Most children will survive it but we don't know the long term impact."
In Scotland, where all children are being jabbed by public sector workers, 60 percent of 12 to 15 year olds have had their first dose.
Dr David Wrigley, British Medical Association council deputy chair, said: "The BMA has raised time and time again its concerns around large private companies being handed contracts to deliver NHS and public health contracts, despite past failings showing us that they are often unable to fulfil their duties.
"Instead of throwing billions of pounds at the private sector, we should have adequate investment in publicly provided NHS services and public health teams, which have proven track records of delivering much-needed services to their communities."
The companies involved include Virgin Care – rebranded as the HCRG Care Group this week following a takeover – and Intrahealth.
Dr John Lister, from Keep Our NHS Public, said: “Private companies don’t bring the same combined approach into a vaccination campaign.
“The NHS has a massive population reach, it can engage with GPs, it can attract volunteers, it can access resources across the board.
“No private provider is going to have that and no one wants to volunteer for a private company.
“It’s always been a completely false notion of economy and efficiency to get the private sector in to do these things, but sadly that’s the way the government works.”
Dr Lister added: “This is a long standing problem in England.
“The UK during Covid has been a textbook example of why the private sector isn’t a solution to the problems faced by the NHS.
“Anything they have been involved in, like test and trace, has been a basket case.”
Professor Azeem Majeed, head of the primary care and public health department at Imperial College London, added that it would now be impossible to double jab the majority of this age group before the spring.
He said: “Our programme has been slow, and we started later than other countries, and it’s only recently been announced that children in this age group will get two doses. You need two doses to get good protection.
“Some kids have not had their first vaccine, and then they will have to wait 12 weeks for their second dose, whereas in other countries children are being offered a second dose three or four weeks after the first.
“It will be well into next year – March or April – before the majority of children aged 12 to 15 will be offered their second dose.
Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of National Education Union, said: “Scotland is well ahead of England in distributing vaccines to secondary school pupils.
"It is no coincidence that the rate of Covid amongst Scotland’s pupils is falling where in England it’s rising."
An NHS spokesperson said: "The NHS has delivered more than one million Covid-19 vaccinations to children aged 12-15 in England and as the public would expect works with a wide range of partners who have successfully delivered immunisation programmes for children in schools for nearly a decade."
A spokesperson for HCRG Care Group, said: "We were appointed to run the school age immunisation service in 2017 by NHS commissioners. As part of the service, the government decided that school age immunisation services should deliver Covid vaccines to the 12-15 year old age group in a school setting.
“We aim to deliver both the flu and Covid vaccination to all 12-15 year olds within the specified timeframe, as advised by the government."
Intrahealth was approached for comment.
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