The COVID-19 vaccination is now being rolled out to the younger population and it is widely anticipated that the vaccine may also soon be approved for use in younger children. For many there is now a dilemma over whether or not to vaccinate their child, with differing views surrounding the vaccine.
A major worry may be who makes the call over whether a child receives it. This can cause added stress especially when the child and their parents have different views or perhaps even more so when the parents disagree between themselves. Here are five things to consider:
If your child is aged 16 or over then the decision is likely to be theirs
The age of the child has a significant impact on who makes this decision. If your child is 16 or over, they are presumed to be able to consent to their own medical treatment. This means that they will have the final say on whether they receive the vaccine or not. Unless there are exceptional circumstances this decision cannot be overruled by a parent.
Some younger children may also be able to make their own decision
It can get more challenging when a child is 15 or younger. If the child and their parents all agree on whether or not they will receive the vaccine then that is what will happen. However, if there is disagreement between the child and parent then there is no presumption that a child under 16 has the capacity to make the decision. It is only if they are judged to be Gillick competent that they can do so.
To determine whether a child has Gillick competency, consideration would be given to a range of factors including the child’s age, understanding of the issue, long term effects and mental capacity. The Gillick competency test is done on an individual basis and there is no lower age limit for establishing competency. However, it is likely to be unusual for a child under 13 to establish competency.
If a child is shown to be Gillick competent, they can overrule their parents’ wishes as they are deemed to have the ability to consent to/or refuse the Covid-19 vaccine themselves.
If the decision rests with parents then both parents will need to agree
Anyone with parental responsibility for a child (usually one of the parents) can give consent for the vaccination to proceed and legally this only needs to be from one person. However, the guidance is clear that if one person with parental responsibility doesn’t consent (or actively disagrees) then the vaccination will usually not proceed until the dispute is resolved or there is court approval. In practice it is therefore likely that both parents need to agree to the vaccine being given for it to proceed.
If parents cannot agree then they don’t necessarily have to go to court
It would be possible for either parent to make a court application to resolve a dispute, known as a specific issue application. If the court is asked to determine the issue they will have decide by balancing the wishes and feelings of the child (considered in the light of their age and understanding), the physical, emotional and educational needs of the child, the age, sex and background of the child and any harm or risk of suffering from action or inaction. Again, it will be child specific, based on the individual circumstances.
A potentially better way of resolving matters and avoiding court would be mediation. Mediation can provide a forum for the expressing of all views in a controlled manner, allowing both parties to explore them together, to try to find compromise. Crucially, where appropriate, mediation can also obtain the wishes of the child and feed those into the decision process in a calm and sensitive manner. This can often help avoid the need for court intervention and help protect the wider relationships of the family.
If it is still not possible to reach an agreement then arbitration could be considered as a quick and likely less expensive option to obtain a binding decision.
If in doubt, seek out information, advice and other support
There will be many parents faced with the same difficult situation. It is important to remember that you are not alone and that the best thing to do if you have concerns is to stay informed, do your research and reach out to others if you need support.
There are many resources available online, but it is important to seek out trusted information and advice about the vaccine; from official sources. The JCVI report is a good place to start, which refers to the guidance being “finely balanced”.
Once you have done some research, it is best to discuss matters with your co-parent and, in an age appropriate manner, your child. It may be that you want assistance with this or to know your options, based on your circumstances, if you cannot reach an agreement in advance. An initial discussion with a mediator or solicitor may help.
It is also important to remember that your child may already be anxious about the virus and the vaccine. Carefully considering how to handle matters and seeking out resources and advice from parenting experts may offer a sensible route into discussions with your child.