UK Politics

Health secretary 'looking seriously' at compulsory vaccines for schoolchildren

Child getting measles vaccine Image copyright Jovanmandic

The health secretary has said he is "looking very seriously" at making vaccinations compulsory for all children going to school in England.

Some experts have suggested it may be necessary to address falling rates of immunisation and a surge in diseases like measles.

Matt Hancock told an event at the Tory conference he had taken legal advice this week on how to go about it.

Unvaccinated children were "putting other children at risk", he said.

The uptake of the MMR (Measles, Mumps and Rubella) vaccine in particular has been declining in many countries.

The reason is not clear. Rates dipped in the 1990s following publication of a report linking MMR to autism, but partly recovered after that research was discredited and disproved.

However, the volume of anti-vaccine sentiment on social media has been swelling and in March, the head of NHS England warned "vaccination deniers" were gaining traction online.

Speaking at the event organised by the Huffington Post, Mr Hancock said: "I'm very worried about falling rates of vaccinations - especially measles.

"For measles, the falling vaccination rates are a serious problem and it is unbelievable that Britain has lost its measles-free status."

He added: "The worst thing is if you don't vaccinate your child and you can, then the person you are putting at risk is not only just your own child, but it's also the child that cant be vaccinated for medical reasons.

"Maybe they have cancer and their immune system is too weak.

"I don't want the debate to put people off because there is absolute clarity on what the science says and what the right thing is to do."

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Matt Hancock says unvaccinated children were "putting other children at risk"

The health secretary has said before he was willing to look at "all options" to boost England's vaccination levels, including compulsory immunisation - and while he did not want to "reach the point" of imposing jabs, he would "rule nothing out".

Mr Hancock appeared to firm up his stance at the conference in Manchester on Sunday.

"When the state provide service to people then it's a two-way street," he said. "You have to take your responsibilities too.

"I have received advice from inside government this week on how we would go about it and I am looking into it very seriously."

Measles is highly infectious and can cause serious health complications, including damaging the lungs and brain.

There were more than 82,500 cases in Europe in 2018 - the highest number in a decade and three times the total reported in 2017.

In England, the proportion of children receiving both doses of the MMR jab by their fifth birthday has fallen over the last four years to 87.2%.

This is below the 95% said to provide "herd immunity", the level considered by experts to protect a population from a disease.