Teachers should be vaccinated during the period of school closures to ensure they open again as soon as possible, the chair of the influential education select committee has urged.
Robert Halfon has said the government “should use the time over this period during school closures up to the half-term to vaccinate teachers” so that pupils can return safely to school as soon as possible.
“There is no doubt in my mind that teachers and support staff should be a priority for vaccination alongside NHS workers,” he told Schools Week.
“As soon as teachers and support staff are vaccinated, we can open schools again.”
His words come after prime minister Boris Johnson announced a last-minute U-turn last night on reopening schools, closing them to all but children of key workers and vulnerable children from today until February half-term. For many staff this means they must still go into work.
However, teachers and other support staff are not in one of the government’s main priority groups for vaccination between now and February.
The priority groups are care home staff and residents, people over the age of 80 and frontline health and social care workers, including NHS staff.
Next in line are people over the age 75, and then people aged 70 and those classed as clinically extremely vulnerable.
A petition calling for school and childcare workers to be prioritised for vaccination has now attracted more than 275,000 signatures. Meanwhile the National Education Union has also called for teachers to be prioritised for vaccination in the next two weeks alongside NHS and care home staff.
However not all experts think that teachers should be a priority for vaccination based on the available evidence.
Professor Allyson Pollock, director of Newcastle University’s centre for excellence in regulatory science and formerly part of the Independent Sage group, said vaccinations must be done “on the basis of risk to begin with, which means age, obesity, diabetes, BMI and so on”.
“I don’t understand why you would put teachers in that priority group [with care home and NHS staff],” she told Schools Week.
“With care home staff, it’s about protecting the older care home residents who are at risk because of their age. With NHS staff it’s about protecting medically vulnerable people.
“If you are going to vaccinate, you go for protecting the high-risk groups. Children are extremely low risk.”
One of the issues is a public “myth” that children are “spreaders of disease” and “key drivers of admissions to hospitals”, said Pollock.
“There’s really no evidence to support that. That’s a big myth that’s got to be tackled. We’ve got a lot of fear going on that’s not healthy.”
The priority groups for vaccination set out by the government are based on recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, published on 30 December.
The committee mentions vaccinating teachers as part of the “second phase” of vaccinations after the priority groups, alongside people in the military, those in the justice system, transport workers and others.
Figures recently obtained by the NASUWT teachers’ union show that the staff coronavirus infections are far outstripping local rates.
Yesterday in Scotland first minister Nicola Sturgeon said she will look at whether vaccines for teachers can be “accelerated” but stressed those most at risk from Covid-19 must be prioritised.
And at the end of last year, education secretary Gavin Williamson told the education select committee that he hoped school staff would be “high up” the vaccination priority list but that it was not within his “remit to determine who will be receiving vaccinations”.
Halfon also said today on BBC Radio 4′ that the government’s response to the pandemic has been a “huge shambles” and he felt “enormously sorry” for parents, pupils and teachers.