Williamson 'fighting tooth and nail' on teacher vaccine

Education secretary says teachers and school staff should be top priority in the next wave of Covid vaccines

John Roberts

Coronavirus: Education secretary Gavin Williamson has said that teachers and school staff should be the top priority for getting a Covid vaccine in the next wave of vaccinations

Education secretary Gavin Williamson today said he was fighting "tooth and nail" to ensure that teachers and support staff are moved up the priority list for getting a Covid-19 vaccine.

He told the Commons Education Select Committee this morning that it was "understandably right" the government had chosen to first prioritise people most at risk of going into hospital with the virus.

But Mr Williamson said that teachers and school staff should be the top priority in the next wave of people getting vaccinated for Covid-19.

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Mr Williamson added: "There's a school workforce of a million and it is absolutely vital that we do not forget support staff in this because it is often the support staff that are the most exposed.

"I think there is a special need in the area of special schools as well, where there is often a crossover between not just an education setting but also as a care and health setting as well.

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"It is quite understandably right that the government has chosen to prioritise [for vaccination] those that are most at risk of being hospitalised.

"But...in that next wave where we have to prioritise others, I will make no apology for the fact that I see the top priority as all those who work in schools.

"Not just teachers but all those that work in schools because every single one of them is absolutely vital for delivering education."

The committee's chairman, Robert Halfon, said it was good that Mr Williamson was fighting to move teachers and support staff up the list for getting the vaccine.

Mr Williamson replied: "Mr chairman, absolutely tooth and nail. It is the thing I have conversations about every single day."

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said it was "good news" that education staff would be a top priority but added the "devil is in the detail".

"The NEU accepts that the oldest and most vulnerable, along with health and care staff, must be offered protection first," she said.

"It is good news that education staff will be 'top priority' in the next phase and that the government has accepted our arguments that it is vitally important that education staff are protected as soon as possible.

"As ever, the devil is in the detail and the government has a poor track record on delivering on its promises. We look forward to hearing more detail about the timetable for this."

The comments come after education unions, associations and representative bodies had called for teachers and education staff to be prioritised in phase two of the country’s vaccination programme.

In a letter to vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, health secretary Matt Hancock and Mr Williamson, leaders of a number of organisations – including the Association of Colleges, the Association of School and College Leaders and the NEU – called on the government to raise the vaccination priority level for all staff in early years, school and college settings.

The letter said that vaccination prioritisation, combined with mass testing, would be a "sure way" to reduce transmissions, remove further disruption to education and reduce the burden of homeschooling on working parents.

Association of Colleges chief executive David Hughes added: "The strength of feeling from all voices within the education sector on vaccinating teachers and education staff could not be clearer.

"Today's letter is a sign that prioritising vaccinations for teachers and staff who work in education is the best way to support the national effort to reopen all education settings as soon as it is safe to do so.

"As part of a wider plan that includes mass testing and all of the measures schools, colleges and other providers are taking, this prioritisation will be a key part of reducing transmissions and reducing any further disruption to students' learning."

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, told another committee of MPs that in order to keep services running, it would be a "societal decision" on which key workers are next prioritised for a vaccine.

She told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: "The issue is probably not about mortality, but more about the resilience of the workforce.

"That, actually, is a decision that probably is beyond the health data that we normally work with.

"I think there will be other factors that we would have to consider at that time and it's almost a societal decision, I guess, on which occupations are the ones that we most want to protect in order to keep our society going."

Last week multi-academy trust leader Sir John Townsley called for school staff to receive the Covid vaccine.

The chief executive of Gorse Academies Trust said: "It is extraordinary that teachers and other frontline school staff are not being prioritised in the vaccine rollout programme. 

"Ensuring frontline school staff are healthy is essential if we are to keep schools open so children can maintain their education, as well as professionals being able to carry out essential welfare and safeguarding checks on students. 

"Prioritising them in the vaccine rollout is a matter of urgency if we are to expect them to continue to play their crucial role.

"Clearly teachers and teaching assistants should come after the elderly, other vulnerable members of society, care home workers and NHS staff,f but currently school staff are not mentioned at all as a priority group."

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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