As a paradoxical consequence of the UK’s vaccination success, politicians are now arguing about who should come next in the inoculation queue.
Currently there are nine groups prioritised for Phase 1 of the vaccine roll out, with over 70s, care home residents and healthcare workers in the first four categories, and expected to be immunised by mid-February.
Then the plan is for those over 50 and people between the ages of 16-64 who have underlying health conditions to get the jab. That’s unless Labour gets its way, as Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Minister, have recently suggested that school staff should be bumped up the queue and vaccinated during February half-term.
Far worse than that were the assertions of Angela Rayner who claimed it’s a “fact” that all key workers, including teachers, are “more at risk of infection and death”.
All of this was supported by self-appointed vaccine expert Tony Blair, who suggested the Government could get teachers vaccinated in a couple of days. “Obviously speaking as somebody who is in that age category, of course I want the vaccine as soon as possible – but I think on the other hand it is so important to get the children back into school”, he said.
Clearly there’s a fair bit of support for this idea, with IPSOS MORI recently finding that 46 per cent of the public want teachers and nursery staff vaccinated ahead of “healthy” people in their 60s. It’s understandable that everyone wants to do everything they can to get schools open, fearful of the consequences of closures on children’s education and development.
But the calls to change the system are misplaced for a number of reasons.
For one, it ignores the fact that teachers who are at risk will be included in the Government’s current roll out, which is the most straightforward, ethical system, designed to save the most lives – hence why it prioritises age, which is the biggest risk factor.
Second, Labour’s proposal ignores the main reason why schools are closed, which is that which is that they’re vectors of disease – leading to transmission in the home and communities, where Coronavirus can be passed onto high risk individuals. Tinkering with the current vaccine system risks could mean these same vulnerable people lose their vaccine to teachers with low risk from Coronavirus.
Lastly, there are other occupational groups that have equal, if not more, right to be prioritised in the vaccine queue, only they do not always have vocal unions advocating on their behalf. Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) found some of the highest death rates among restaurant staff, people working in factories, taxi drivers and security guards.
The ONS also found that teachers were not at a significantly higher risk of death from Covid-19 than the general population, something that has been iterated by Jonathan Van Tam, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer, who told a Coronavirus briefing that there was no signal of a markedly increased rate of infection or mortality in teachers.
It’s worth pointing out that the most at risk teaching group is male secondary school teachers, so when the NHS does get to teachers, it will need to think about prioritising this cohort first (it is worth adding that compared to all working-age men the risk is less pronounced).
All in all, though, Labour’s campaign has been a cynical one, which risks destabilising the vaccine progress, and ultimately underlines the party’s lack of ideas as to how to tackle the pandemic, hence its non-starter proposals, such as Starmer’s “circuit breaker”.
This latest suggestion is not only desperate, but dangerous too. Given the speed and success of the vaccine so far, let’s leave it to the experts.