The removal of teachers from the vaccine priority queue is driven by science and is "not a value judgement on any profession", Minister for Education Norma Foley has said.
Speaking at the annual congress of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), Ms Foley did not give any indication that the Government will reverse its decision to introduce an age-based approach to vaccinating the population instead of one that prioritises frontline workers.
Ms Foley said the revised approach was driven by international research, which shows that 60-65 years olds are 70 times more likely to die as a result of Covid-19 than those aged 30-35.
“This is the latest medical and scientific evidence,” she said. “This is not a value judgement on any given profession. This is simply the science.”
She said while she understood the sense of disappointment among frontline workers, the education sector has been consistently guided by public health and medical experts.
All three teachers’ unions, however, have agreed to a joint motion backing measures up to industrial action if the Government does not prioritise their members for vaccination.
In a joint statement on Tuesday morning, the INTO, the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) and the Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) confirmed that the emergency motion would be placed before their conferences on Wednesday.
“The motion will seek to commit the unions to work together to demand vaccine prioritisation for teachers. Should that fail, the motion will mandate the unions to explore any and all options, up to and including industrial action,” the three unions said in a joint statement.
Any industrial action will not affect the planned reopening of schools on April 12th, according to the unions.
Speaking in response to Ms Foley, INTO general secretary John Boyle warned that teachers must be vaccinated quickly if the Government is to secure their continued co-operation.
The decision to remove teachers from the priority queue showed “blatant disregard” for members’ safety.
“Teachers must be re-instated as a high-priority group to be vaccinated early to ensure that schools can remain open safely,” he said.
“Reports last week seemed to suggest that your Government is not concerned about teachers who may contract this deadly virus or those who suffer the excruciating and debilitating impacts of long Covid.
“But rather, concern appears only to be with decreasing hospitalisations and taking the easy, rather than the fair approach to vaccination. It’s simply not good enough, Minister.”
He said the Government “broke its promise” in writing that teachers would be in the first third of the population to be vaccinated.
“If Government wants our cooperation to continue, it must fulfil its earlier commitment to our members by vaccinating them quickly,” he said.
He called on the Minister to introduce a parallel approach to provide for the priority vaccination of teachers in tandem with an age-based appraoch.
At the ASTI’s annual conference, the union’s president Ann Piggott said teachers in the high-risk categories with a history of cancer, heart or other serious illnesses must be facilitated to work from home until they are safely vaccinated.
Ms Piggott also said pregnant teachers must “undeniably be facilitated in remote working for the remainder of the school year and in the future if they risk being exposed to Covid”.
Teachers in high-risk categories and teachers in the 60 to 64-year age group had been told to return to “choc-a-block” classrooms from April 12th, she said.
Other people in the high risk category who suffer from cancer, heart failure, chronic kidney disease as examples were being forced to return to class.
Ms Pigott said the Government’s decision to change its Covid-19 vaccination schedule to an age-based system represented “a brutal and sudden kick in the teeth for teachers and other public sector workers” and must be reversed.
She urged the introduction of a parallel vaccination system for teachers and other frontline workers alongside the programme for the general public.
At the TUI annual conference, the union’s president Martin Marjoram said the Department of Education had made clear commitments on vaccine allocation which “must be honoured.”
“On February 10th and again on February 23rd, correspondence from the Department of Education to the system - on which TUI was consulted in advance - gave clear indication of our place in the prioritisation, and indeed offered hope that Department representations would see front line school staff vaccinated at the earliest possible opportunity within that first third,” Mr Marjoram said.
“We have never sought to be advanced above those most vulnerable to infection or the most serious consequences thereof, but we must insist that commitments made on such sensitive issues be honoured.”
Senior Government sources indicated that a reversal on the new vaccine priority list is not likely.
They said the new list was the “fastest and fairest way” to roll out the vaccines and had been recommended by public health experts.
Many essential workers had worked throughout the pandemic and argued other groups could make claims for early vaccination if it bowed to teachers’ demands, they added.
A Government spokesman said the latest vaccination sequencing is “based on medical advice to protect the most medically vulnerable in society”.
“The evidence has shown age is by far the biggest factor in serious illness, hospitalisation and mortality due to Covid-19,” the spokesman said.
"Many essential workers have played an important part since the start of the pandemic. The National Immunisation Advisory Committee has explained the rationale to various stakeholders and based on the medical advice this is the safest and swiftest way to roll the vaccine programme out."
Unions, as well as representative bodies for gardaí, want the Government to introduce a parallel process which would see those in frontline roles receive their vaccines in separate streams at mass centres. This would run side by side with the system in place for the general public.
It is uncertain whether support to ballot for industrial action will end up disrupting schools.
The INTO is understood to be pushing for any potential industrial action to take place in May or June. However, secondary teachers’ unions – whose members finish in-class teaching on May 28th – are reluctant to disrupt the Leaving Cert.