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School staff a ‘top priority’ for next wave of vaccination, minister says

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Education Secretary Gavin Williamson answered questions from MPs (House of Commons/PA)

The Education Secretary has said he will “make no apology” for wanting teachers and school staff to be a top priority for coronavirus vaccinations.

Gavin Williamson told a committee of MPs on Wednesday that it was “understandably right” the Government had chosen to prioritise people most at risk of going into hospital.

But he told the Education Select Committee that in the next wave he saw people who work in schools as the “top priority”.

Mr Williamson was supported by vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi, who told the Commons Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday it was his “instinct” that teachers and other frontline keyworkers would be next in line for the vaccine, but that the decision was not his to make.

Speaking at the education committee, Mr Williamson said: “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.

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
Gavin Williamson

“It is quite understandably right that the Government has chosen to prioritise those that are most at risk of being hospitalised (for vaccination).

“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.”

At the science committee, Mr Zahawi said the decision was up to the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisations (JCVI).

He said: “The JCVI are best-placed to look at this in terms of looking at where do we go next.

“Now, my instinct is to say, rightly so that those who are most likely to come into contact with a viral load: teachers, shop workers, police men and women would be the highest risk of getting the virus, and therefore they’re the ones we should focus on, but I would very much be guided by the JCVI.”

Dr Mary Bousted, National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary, said it was “good news” education staff would be a top priority but added the “devil is in the detail”.

She added: “The NEU accepts that the oldest and most vulnerable, along with health and care staff, must be offered protection first.

“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 (AOC), Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), and 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.

AOC 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.”

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