Covid vaccinations have begun for 12- to 15-year-olds in the next stage of the vaccination programme.
However, rather than taking place in vaccination centres, the doses will be administered in schools.
Although schools are well used to liaising with the School Age Immunisation Service (SAIS) in the administration of other vaccines that children receive at school, the decision to vaccinate teenagers against Covid-19 comes with more complications – not least the risk of protests against children receiving the vaccine.
Indeed, before the announcement had even been made that 12- to 15-year-olds would receive the jab, schools received legal threats from anti-vaccination groups.
Other objections stem from the issue of "Gillick competency" – the legal ability of a child to consent to their own medical treatment, without the need for parental permission or knowledge. Where a teenager is judged to be "Gillick competent", they are able to decide for themselves whether they want to be vaccinated, and override the wishes of the parent.
Other protests centre around concerns about the vaccine itself, or question the need to vaccinate children from the virus.
As such, despite the separation between the school and the vaccine delivery, teachers and wider school staff could potentially face protesters at the school gates or other on-site disruptions.
This risk is, of course, low and hopefully this situation will affect very few schools – if any.
Nonetheless, the risk is there and, under these circumstances, the government has issued guidance about what to do in the event of protests.
Guidance to schools on handling protests against Covid vaccination
The guidance acknowledges the legal threats that some schools have already received, and directs schools to contact their SAIS team to discuss security plans and recommended pre-vaccination day actions.
The guidance also reminds schools that they should have an existing security policy, and there is already guidance on how to keep schools secure. It says this can be a good starting point when considering issues around protests.
Furthermore, in the event of a protest, it says schools should alert the SAIS provider, local authority (LA) and the police for advice on how to manage the situation.
What should school leaders do now?
Although this is all useful, the guidance falls short of advising schools on what they can do in advance of a protest in order to minimise its disruption to pupils and staff.
We spoke to experts about what actions schools should take, and how to manage tricky communications with staff and parents.
1. Make all staff aware of their role in the vaccinations
Naturally, teachers will not be expected to be involved in the actual vaccinations of students.
They will not be assessing Gillick competency, nor will they be expected to handle any protests that gather at the gates. The SAIS team, and, if necessary, the police, will be the ones who hold operational responsibility.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, says it’s important that this distinction in roles is made clear.
“Responsibility sits with the School Age Immunisation Service and not with schools, whose only role is in hosting vaccinations and providing and sharing communications about the process,” he says.
“Teachers and leaders must be able to concentrate on education whilst providing the necessary support to allow the SAIS to do its job.”
From the guidance given to the SAIS teams, we can see it is its staff and volunteers who will be expected to manage any disruptions to the vaccination programme.
Nonetheless, the coronavirus vaccination site security guidance recommends sharing information between staff in order to make it easier to identify potential issues.
“One of the best ways to help stop that disruption is to have staff and volunteers working in a vaccination centre aware of the context of the threat. This is particularly important for those responsible for security. If you have an idea of what to expect, it is much easier to spot something.”
This may not directly include teachers but given that the vaccinations are taking place in school, it is important that schools inform staff about exactly what is happening, where and when, so they can alert people to any issues that appear.
Leaders may well want to ensure they have a close working relationship with the SAIS team to ensure they know who to pass information on to, should this be required.
2. Preparations in case of protest
Although protesters expressing their objections to either lockdown rules or the vaccination programme have become a familiar sight during the course of the pandemic, schools have rarely been a direct target.
Despite this, and the fact that the SAIS guidance acknowledges that the majority of the public are in support of the vaccination programme, there is a chance some groups may protest at a vaccine centre.
The SAIS guidance to its staff says they need to be aware of this risk and that "a robust plan should be in place with the police to deal with planned and unplanned protests”.
However, while this mainly falls to SAIS teams to organise, schools will be directly affected by any protest and should consider their position, should any protest occur.
This may include having to consider legal action, as David Smellie, partner at independent law firm Farrer and Co, explains.
“Lawful and peaceful demonstrations are, of course, permitted in a free society, whether outside school or anywhere else,” he says.
“That said, protests which obstruct the highway or involve anti-social behaviour may breach the law.”
The hope is no school will find itself in this position, but given that schools have previously been at the centre of such situations over other issues, it would be wise for schools to at least be aware of this possibility.
3. Communications with the police
If a protest does occur, schools are advised to contact either the "SAIS provider, local authority and police contacts to discuss the best way to manage the situation".
Doing this before any protest is also recommended by Smellie, to ensure schools have a direct link with the key personnel before any situation arises.
“Where schools have police liaison officers, it would be sensible to involve them in the planning and discussions around lawful demonstrations,” he says.
The hope will be the SAIS team and police can manage any protest directly but having that direct communication between all involved could make life easier if action is required.
4. The risk of sabotage
At the majority of schools, vaccinations will likely be carried out without disturbance.
However, even if protests do not take place, there are other issues that may occur – not least the risk of sabotage by vandals or criminals looking to steal the expensive equipment potentially being stored on school grounds.
For example, the SAIS guidance document to its staff notes that there was an the "attempted theft of a generator" at one site, although it was thankfully prevented.
“Had this succeeded, the vaccine refrigeration would have been disrupted and several doses lost," it adds.
The SAIS team will be aware of these risks, and, as part of their own security, will ensure that access to site infrastructure is as secure as possible.
Nonetheless, leaders may want to warn school staff that sabotage or theft is a possibility, and to raise the alarm if they see any suspicious behaviour on site.