Staff in early years settings, schools and colleges should be prioritised in phase 2 of the coronavirus vaccination programmes, education organisations and unions have urged.
Their call comes as it has been reported that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) is recommending an age-based approach to the next stage of the rollout, rather than one based on occupation.
It was previously suggested that critical workers, including those in the education sector, could be prioritised for vaccinations after the completion of phase 1 of the rollout, which focused on protecting those most at risk of serious illness or death from Covid.
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With the government aiming to open schools and colleges to more learners from 8 March, the Early Years Alliance, the NAHT school leaders' union, the Association of School and College Leaders, the Association of Colleges, the NEU teaching union, the NASUWT teachers' union, Unison, GMB and the Association of Directors of Children’s Services are jointly calling on the Department of Health and Social Care and the JCVI to ensure that those working in the education sector are prioritised for the second phase of the vaccination rollout.
The chief executive of Association of Colleges, David Hughes, said: "The strength of feeling from all voices within the education sector on vaccinating teachers and education staff could not be clearer. The call today 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 that 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.”
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Neil Leitch, chief executive of the Early Years Alliance, said: “It is unthinkable that having asked those in the early years sector to put their own health, and the wellbeing of their loved ones, at risk during lockdown, the government would even consider not ensuring that they are prioritised for the next phase of Covid-19 vaccinations. The vast majority of those working in the early years do not have the option to work from home – they are on the frontline every day caring for and educating young children who do not and cannot socially distance.
“With Covid cases in early years settings continuing to rise sharply, it is absolutely critical that all those working in nurseries, preschools and childminding settings, along with other education colleagues, are given the protection they need to continue doing their jobs as safely as possible.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said if education really was a national priority, then it was “surely imperative that the staff in our schools and colleges are prioritised for vaccinations in the next phase of the rollout”. “They are expected to work in environments which are inherently busy and crowded and they deserve the reassurance of vaccinations as soon as possible. This is also very important in terms of continuity of education for children because it will help to minimise further disruption caused by Covid-related staff absence,” he said.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT, said: “We want to see all school staff prioritised for vaccination as soon as possible after the most vulnerable are protected. This would not just help protect those staff at work, as they are forced to take greater risks than those able to stay at home, it would also mean a more sustainable return to school for children in the longer term, with less disruption to education caused by absence and illness.”
Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, joint general secretaries of the NEU, said education staff needed to be vaccinated as top priority in phase 2: “They are in daily unavoidable close contact with students where social distancing is difficult and PPE [personal protective equipment] partial. The focus on the oldest and most vulnerable in phase 1 should be followed by a focus in phase 2 on those whose work puts them at greater risk."
Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said: “The NASUWT believes it is in the national interest that the education workforce be a priority group for the Covid-19 vaccine. Teachers and education staff are unable to practise social distancing from their pupils and few are provided with essential PPE as part of their day-to-day roles. Unless we vaccinate to educate, we risk it taking longer than necessary to reopen all schools and colleges fully and cause yet more hardship for children, their families and our communities.”
Jon Richards, head of education at the Unison union, said: “Support staff offering one-to-one support, health and pastoral care makes social distancing a problem, particularly when working with younger children and those with special educational needs. Also support staff are often in higher-risk groups – so priority vaccination would help to protect pupils, local communities and education staff.”
Avril Chambers, national officer for the GMB union, said: “GMB continues to call for urgent priority of vaccines for school support staff as they are more likely to be at risk and therefore absent from work due to Covid-19 because support staff are often performing tasks that involve close contact without adequate PPE and often in poorly ventilated areas, which leads to a higher risk of transmission.”