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Prominent Australian paediatricians warn rules banning unvaccinated 12 to 15 year-olds in Victoria from attending public venues or social gatherings are not proportionate to the health threat they pose and risk causing further mental health harm among children.

Exclusion rules for unvaccinated children in Victoria are the toughest in Australia, prohibiting them from going to public places including retail shops, cafes and restaurants, and triggering vigorous debate over whether the directives go too far.

A vial of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.Credit:AP

Australian immunisation expert Margie Danchin said it was imperative children, who had endured prolonged lockdowns, were not harshly penalised by COVID-19 vaccine mandates for school, social or sporting activities.

“Kids have really suffered enough in the pandemic,” she said.

“When you start to impact these kids in terms of social interactions and sporting interactions, there is a risk you are just compounding the harm.”

Professor Danchin pointed to the rising rates of eating disorders, self-harm, depression and anxiety among young people reported during the pandemic.

Excluding unvaccinated young people can compound the impact of the pandemic, Associate Professor Margie Danchin says. Credit:Luis Enrique Ascui

“We’re only just starting to appreciate the impact of lockdowns on children and it’s been profound,” she said. “There are other ways you can manage the risk without excluding a young person for not being vaccinated.”

While all Australian states and territories strongly encourage COVID-19 immunisation for those aged 12 to 15, none have so far put blanket bans on unvaccinated children and teenagers attending public venues.

The state that comes closest to Victoria’s strict vaccine exclusions is NSW. However, in NSW, children under 16 years of age who are not fully vaccinated can generally follow the rules for vaccinated people, as long as they attend certain business premises with a fully vaccinated member of their household.

This rule is expected to end on December 15. The Victorian government intends to extend its lockout of the unvaccinated throughout 2022.

Fiona Russell, a paediatrician specialising in epidemiology and vaccination, said vaccine mandates had played a role in encouraging the adult population in Victoria to be immunised against the virus to protect the wider community.

But she said excessively applying the same rules to young teens risked further amplifying the difficulties they had experienced during the pandemic, particularly the social and mental health implications.

”Children have suffered so much, they really should not be caught up in this,” Professor Russell said. “At no time should [coronavirus] vaccines be mandated for under-15s, that is my personal view.“

Professor Russell said while children could transmit the virus, the onus should be on parents and adults around them to be vaccinated.

“Children are coming back out of lockdown with social anxiety and all sorts of things,” she said. “They should feel supported and a part of society and not excluded in any way. That’s extremely important.”

Professor Russell said the focus should be on ensuring the Australian adult population was vaccinated and that test, trace, isolate and quarantine measures were up to scratch.

The Australasian Society for Infectious Diseases has also voiced its opposition, tweeting on Wednesday it did not support COVID-19 vaccine mandates for any child under 16 in Australia.

Asked about the scientific evidence around vaccine mandates for children, Professor Danchin said she believed the same result could be achieved through using face masks, social distancing and screening through regular testing.

“You can manage the risk and reduce disease transmission by other measures,” she said. “If that means that that child needs rapid antigen testing before they attend an indoor function or indoor game, you can manage the risk, without mandating that they’re excluded.”

Meanwhile, infectious diseases expert Robert Booy said holding young teenagers to the same vaccination rules as adults in Victoria was overreach, when children were at much less risk of serious illness and death from COVID-19.

Following heated backlash from Victorian principals and parents, who raised concerns that unvaccinated students faced being excluded from end-of-year milestone events, schoolchildren were given some reprieve from mandates on Monday.

Unvaccinated 12 to 15-year-olds are now free to attend camps, graduation ceremonies and school excursions including at swimming pools and adventure parks, as long as a teacher is present.

The three paediatricians interviewed by The Age were also strongly opposed to mandating vaccines for children aged 5 to 11.

Professor Booy urged caution on any rush to vaccinate primary school students against the virus, warning it might take months to know whether the risks of the coronavirus jab outweigh the benefits for young children.

About 3 million young children have been vaccinated against the virus in the United States and the University of Sydney professor said at least three weeks’ follow-up on these children was needed to be confident they were not reporting any adverse side effects.

As of Thursday, 93.6 per cent of Victorians aged 12 and over have now had at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In Victoria, more than 85.7 per cent of people aged 12 to 15 have received at least one dose and 77.1 per cent are fully vaccinated.

On Wednesday, public health experts said Victoria’s lockout of unvaccinated people should end when vaccine rates top 90 per cent, with some warning the threat of indefinitely banning people from cafes and cinemas is contributing to radicalisation.

Premier Daniel Andrews said earlier this week there were no immediate plans to mandate vaccinations for children aged between 5 and 11, however he could not rule this out entirely.

“It’s too early for us to be definitive about what it’ll mean for that age group,” he said.

The Age contacted the state government and asked what the current health advice was to support rules for exclusions for 12 to 15-year-olds in Victoria.

The government did not answer this question, however a spokeswoman said ensuring every age group was strongly vaccinated “made everybody safer”, particularly the elderly and immunocompromised.

“Vaccine requirements have seen Victoria become one of the most vaccinated and therefore safest places in the world,” she said. “We make no apology for ensuring as many young Victorians as possible are protected against serious illness and harm from COVID-19.”

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