Labour is calling for all teachers and school staff to be vaccinated during the February half-term, in a bid to get children back in classrooms.
The party said there is “growing evidence” that vaccination can reduce the transmission of COVID-19, meaning classes would no longer be disrupted by teachers testing positive.
But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has challenged Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer to “explain which vaccines he would take from which vulnerable groups” in order to achieve the vaccination of teachers.
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The government is currently aiming to offer a first dose of a COVID vaccine to 15 million of the most vulnerable by 15 February.
This includes older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff, and those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
After the first four priority groups are offered a vaccine by the middle of next month, the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended vaccines are then offered to the next five priority groups under the first phase of the vaccination programme.
This includes all those aged over 50 and those aged over 16 with underlying health conditions that puts them at higher risk.
However, Labour now wants teachers and other key workers in critical professions to be added to this list in an expanded first phase of the UK’s vaccination programme.
Sir Keir urged Mr Johnson to include teachers in the first phase of the vaccine rollout during Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
He claimed the prime minister “hasn’t got a plan” for the reopening of schools and said a “first step” should be the vaccination of all teachers and school staff during the “window” of next month’s half-term.
In response, Mr Johnson said: “Of course, it follows that all teachers in JCVI groups 1 to 9 will be vaccinated as a matter of priority.
“And I pay to tribute, by the way, to the huge efforts parents are making across the country, struggling to educate their kids.
“I know how deeply frustrating it is, the extra burden that we have placed on families by closing the schools.
“And no one has worked harder than the Education Secretary [Gavin Williamson] to keep schools open. We all want to open schools.”
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He challenged Sir Keir to say “loudly and clearly what he’s refused to say so many times, and what the public need to hear – that schools are safe”.
“It’s absolutely critical that he says that,” Mr Johnson added.
Sir Keir said he was “none the wiser” as to whether the prime minister agreed with Labour’s plan to use the “fantastic opportunity” of the February half-term to offer vaccines to teachers.
In a statement to the House of Commons later on Wednesday, the prime minister confirmed that schools in England will not reopen after the February half-term.
He said it was the government’s ambition for them to return from 8 March.
Mr Johnson also used his later statement to return to Sir Keir’s demand to expand the first phase of the vaccination programme to include teachers and other key workers.
“I really think he should reflect on what he is saying, because the JCVI priority list 1 to 9 is designed by experts, by clinicians, to prioritise those groups who are most likely to die or to suffer from coronavirus,” the prime minister told MPs.
“By trying to change that and saying that he wants now to bring in other groups of public sector workers to be decided by politicians, rather than by the JCVI, he has to explain which vaccines he would take from which vulnerable groups to make sense of his policy.
“That is what the Labour proposal would involve.
“Indeed, by making it more difficult for us to vaccinate all those vulnerable groups in the fastest possible way, that Labour policy would actually delay our route out of lockdown, delay our ability to get kids back into school.”
Analysis: Should teachers be prioritised for vaccination over half-term?
By Thomas Moore, science correspondent
One can understand the concern of teachers about returning to the classroom.
The new variant is more likely to affect children under the age of 15 than the virus that we have been living with until now.
But should teachers be prioritised for vaccination over half-term, as Labour has said?
Sir Keir Starmer argues that a “faster, wider” vaccine rollout should include teachers alongside people in their 50s and 60s, who will start to get their jabs once the over-70s are protected from mid-February onwards.
The risk is that adding teachers could distract the NHS from immunising the age groups that account for the biggest workload for hospitals.
The median age of people needing intensive care is 62, much younger than you would think.
Less than half are over 70.
The reason is that those in their 50s and 60s spend longer in hospital than older people.
They are more likely survive as a result, though. Older people are more likely to die, but quite soon after admission.
So while the over-70s account for most of the deaths, which is why they are front of the queue set by the government’s vaccine advisors, the older middle-aged account for much of the hospital workload, which is why they are next.
Teachers – and other key workers – below 50 are far less likely to become seriously ill.
Even if the NHS could cope with more people being added to the queue, teachers would be competing for an uncertain supply of vaccine.
Pfizer is behind on its delivery schedule – the 10 million doses due before the end of last year is thought to have been reduced to somewhere closer to four million.
And it has said there will be a temporary reduction in doses being delivered over the next few weeks while it prepares to ramp up production further down the line.
AstraZeneca’s supplies to the UK seem secure, even if deliveries to the EU have been cut. But this is a biological product with no certainty that there won’t be production hitches at some point.
In those circumstances, would you add more people, at low risk of serious disease to the queue?
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