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

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 added: “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.

“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.”

Mr Williamson’s comments come as education unions, associations and representative bodies 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 National Education Union (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.”