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Teachers ‘disappointed’ and police ‘scared and betrayed’ after vaccines to be prioritised over age, not profession

Zoe Tidman
·6-min read
People aged 40-49 are next in line for a Covid-19 vaccine, after Government advisers concluded that vaccinating in order of age remains the quickest way to cut deaths. (AFP via Getty Images)
People aged 40-49 are next in line for a Covid-19 vaccine, after Government advisers concluded that vaccinating in order of age remains the quickest way to cut deaths. (AFP via Getty Images)

Teachers have been left “disappointed” and police “scared and betrayed” after finding out the vaccination against coronavirus of people under 50 would be prioritised by age rather than profession.

Education unions and leaders warned of the potential for disruption to learning when all students are allowed back on 8 March due to the risk of staff absences.

Meanwhile, the chair of the Police Federation attacked the move as a “contemptible betrayal” of officers.

It was revealed on Friday that people aged 40 to 49 will be prioritised next for a Covid-19 vaccine, then those in their 30s, and then 18- to 29-year-olds.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) considered whether groups such as teachers and police officers should be vaccinated next, but concluded the most effective way to prevent death and hospital admission was to carry on prioritising people by age.

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“The vaccination programme is a huge success and continuing the age-based rollout will provide the greatest benefit in the shortest time, including to those in occupations at a higher risk of exposure,” Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid-19 chair for the JCVI, said.

But Steve Chalke, the founder of the Oasis trust – an academy trust with around 50 schools in England – told The Independent that school staff “can feel like they are just cannon fodder” amid the push for schools to be the first part of society to reopen.

“It’s just really the analogy of the trenches in the First World War, let’s just stick them out there and see if it works,” he said. “Well, it would be best to ensure they are safe.”

Mr Chalke added: “We’ve been told that getting our schools open and keeping them open is a priority. So it would be a huge token of the respect that the government has for all school staff to make this is available to them.”

Geoff Barton, from the Association for School and College Leaders, said the union was “disappointed” by the JCVI’s decision.

He called on the government to make a policy decision on vaccine prioritisation, having decided education is a “national priority” and opted for a “big bang” return of all students in England on 8 March.

“It must now back that up by providing a clear direction that education staff will be prioritised in the next phase of the programme,” Mr Barton said.

“This is important not only in reassuring staff who it expects to work in busy and crowded environments, but also in terms of minimising disruption to education caused by staff absence as a result of Covid.”

Research last month found the proportion of teachers absent from school due to a positive coronavirus test was six times higher than that of pupils in primary schools last term, and three times higher in secondary schools.

Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, said: “School staff are being asked to go back into an environment of crowded classrooms, often with little chance of social distancing.”

He added: “It’s hugely disappointing they’re not considered a higher priority and we’ll continue to make the case for their vaccination.”

Police have also hit out at the decision not to prioritise their occupation in the next stage of the vaccine rollout, which Ken Marsh from the Metropolitan Police Federation called “absurd”.

He said the nature of police work meant officers cannot guarantee social distancing, telling BBC News: “We cannot afford a two-metre perimeter from people.”

He added: “We have to be in people’s faces at times. We have to roll around with people at times. My colleagues are genuinely scared not getting the vaccination.”

Meanwhile, John Apter, the national chair of the Police Federation, called it a “contemptible betrayal of police officers”.

“Their anger is palpable, this will not be forgotten,” he tweeted on Thursday.

Martin Hewitt, the chair of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said: “Those on the frontline interact with members of the public on a daily basis and due to the nature of our work, social distancing is not always possible, and many have been subject to disgraceful assaults involving coughing and spitting.

“This increases the risk of transmission to officers as well as to the public.”

He added: “We accept that the JCVI has concluded that the best way of protecting those who potentially have higher risk of exposure to the virus, like police officers, is for them to receive vaccines in line with their age-group, however, we remain disappointed for our officers and staff.”

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Prof Lim, from the JCVI, said: “Vaccinations stop people from dying and the current strategy is to prioritise those who are more likely to have severe outcomes and die from Covid-19.

“The evidence is clear that the risk of hospitalisation and death increases with age.”

He said age “remains a dominant factor – it is still one of the most important causes of severe disease, even in those aged 50 years and below”.

Prof Lim said that even within different occupational groups, it is older people who are more at risk.

The JCVI said targeting occupational groups such as teachers would have been more complex to deliver and may slow down the vaccine programme, leaving some vulnerable people at higher risk for longer.

It also said that, operationally, simple and easy-to-deliver programmes are “critical for rapid deployment and high vaccine uptake”.

Paul Whiteman, from the school leaders’ union NAHT, said the complexity argument was “not a good enough reason not to prioritise the needs of committed professionals”.

He added: “A sick teacher is a teacher away from class, which will mean further disruption to a pupil’s education and could well mean that they may need to be educated from home again.”

Mr Whiteman said school staff were “being required to work with large groups of people who carry at least as much potential for infection as anyone else” and have been “let down by the government at every turn”.

Phase two of the vaccine rollout, which aims to vaccinate all UK adults, will start once people in phase one – the over-50s and the most vulnerable – have received a jab, with the government having set a target of mid-April.

A UK government spokesperson pointed to the JCVI’s explanation that age-based vaccination was the best way to prevent hospital admissions and death.

They added: “All four parts of the UK will follow the recommended approach, subject to the final advice given by the independent expert committee.

“The UK government remains on course to meet its target to offer a vaccine to all those in the phase one priority groups by mid-April, and all adults by the end of July.”

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England (PHE), said: “Delivering a vaccination programme on this scale is incredibly complex and the JCVI’s advice will help us continue protecting individuals from the risk of hospitalisation at pace.

“The age-based approach will ensure more people are protected more quickly.

“It is crucial that those at higher risk – including men and [ethnic minority] communities – are encouraged to take the vaccine, and that local health systems are fully engaged and reaching out to under-served communities to ensure they can access the vaccine.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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