A virologist has called for teachers and school staff to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before schools reopen after the February half term.
Deenan Pillay, a professor at University College London and member of the Independent Sage group, said teachers and school staff should be immunised as a "prerequisite" before schools open more widely.
"I would recommend that this be a prerequisite for schools to go back given that it’s likely that schools are going to be closed until at least half term and maybe beyond that," he told Tes, adding that when schools could reopen safely would also depend upon the rate of infection at the time.
"It will depend on what infection level we’ve got to at that stage; to some extent that’s unknown. But I think the aspiration should be [for vaccination before schools open] and teachers’ unions should ask that immunisation has been offered and implemented," he added.
"We know schools are risky, we know emerging data is coming in from primary schools from Holland today [showing increased transmission] and given we’ve got immunisation coming along, and given it’s vital we reopen schools…immunisation of staff would go some way to contributing to make schools a safer place.
"Immunisation will make it less likely that teachers and other adults will pass on the infection – that’s a bit uncertain at the moment in terms of vaccination but it’s likely that’s the case."
However, Professor Pillay added that immunisation should not be viewed as the sole solution to the virus, and that improved testing, social distancing within schools and better support for contracted staff such as caterers and caretakers while they isolated would also be needed to stem the spread of Covid-19 when schools opened up again.
He said that Independent Sage had not come to an official position on whether teachers and school staff must be vaccinated before schools open but that he thought the group would support his view.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union the NAHT, said: “The case for prioritising the school workforce for vaccination to facilitate a speedy return to face-to-face education is strong.”
The Independent Sage group has previously called for masks to be mandatory in classrooms before the third national lockdown began.
And earlier in January, the group warned that coronavirus infections would continue to spread in the classroom where high numbers of children were attending school.
The group recommended that the government narrow the definition of key workers and increase furlough support to reduce the number of pupils attending school during the new national lockdown.
Last week, education secretary Gavin Williamson said he was fighting "tooth and nail" to make sure teachers and school staff are moved up the priority list to receive a Covid-19 vaccine.
Speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee, he said it was "understandably right" that the government had chosen to prioritise those most at risk of hospitalisation for vaccination.
He added: "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."