Taoiseach signals Government will not change vaccine priority for teachers

All three unions back motion to hold ballots on industrial action as Foley defends changes

Mr Martin said the target is for 80 per cent of adults to have their first vaccine dose by the end of June. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Mr Martin said the target is for 80 per cent of adults to have their first vaccine dose by the end of June. File photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

The Taoiseach Micheál Martin has signalled that the Government will not be deviating from the scientific advice to allocate Covid-19 vaccines by age, after teachers’ unions threatened strike action over the re-prioritisation of vaccination.

Mr Martin was speaking after teachers’ unions said they are to hold ballots for strike action unless the Government agrees to prioritise their members for vaccination by the end of the current school year.

The move follows a shared motion which was supported by delegates at all three teachers’ unions at their conferences on Wednesday morning.

It commits the unions to ballot for industrial action, “up to and including strike action”, if the Government does not agree to prioritise teachers by the end of the end of June.

The move means there is little prospect of disruption to the current school year and any action would likely take place in the new school year.

The motion further demands that the Government “reinstates education staff as a priority group within the national vaccination programme” and demands early vaccination for “pregnant teachers, those in higher-risk categories and those who work in special schools, special classes and home-school community liaison teachers”.

The unions intend to begin balloting members by the end of April, the president-elect of the second-level teachers’ union ASTI, Eamonn Dennehy has said.

Delegates at the annual conference of the union voted by 281 to 70 to back the joint motion.

Mr Dennehy said the Government decision to move away from considering occupation as a priority for vaccination came as a shock to teachers.

While thanking teachers for their work during the pandemic Mr Martin said the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) has been very clear that the change to the vaccination programme was based on age being a key factor in Covid-19 causing severe illness, hospitalisation and death.

He said the decision was “no reflection on any one profession” but added: “we are in the middle of a global pandemic – decisions of this kind have to be made in the overall common good.”

Mr Martin said the target is for 80 per cent of adults to have their first vaccine dose by the end of June and that a very “substantial number” of key workers will certainly have had their first dose and many will have had their second by the start of the next academic year.

He said this was a “cautious” comment on the numbers that will be vaccinated before the next academic year.

Mr Martin also said there had been no expectation that second-level teachers would have had vaccines administered before the end of the current school year.

He said perhaps primary school teachers has some expectation it would have commenced for them given their longer school year.

Put to him that the teaching unions seem very determined on the issue, Mr Martin said: “we’ve been consistently guided by Niac’s advice in respect of the vaccines and we will continue to be.

“I think to deviate from that now would be very, very problematic.”

Minister for Education Norma Foley said it had ‘never been in the gift’ of the Department of Education or of any politician to make a promise on the vaccination programme. Photograph: Alan Betson
Minister for Education Norma Foley said it had ‘never been in the gift’ of the Department of Education or of any politician to make a promise on the vaccination programme. Photograph: Alan Betson

Minister for Education

On Wednesday, Minister for Education Norma Foley also again defended the decision to change the vaccination programme from an age and occupation-based list to an age-based scheme.

Speaking at the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) annual conference, she said latest evidence confirmed that age was the single strongest predictor of whether a person who contracts Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital or die as a result of their infection.

“This is the science,” she said.

She said the Government was acting on the recommendations of Niac which, in turn, were endorsed by the National Public Health Emergency Team.

At a meeting on April 1st, the Minister said she was briefed by acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn and by Dr Kevin Kelleher of the HSE, who presented the medical evidence underpinning the recent changes to the vaccine programme.

“When Niac made their initial recommendations in December 2020 regarding the vaccination programme and its priority schedule, it was considered that a person’s occupation was a significant factor in determining their risk level in terms of Covid-19,” she said.

“New national and international evidence, however, now confirms that age is the single ‘strongest predictor’ of whether a person who contracts Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital or ICU or die as a result of their infection.

“To put this into context, Prof Karina Butler of Niac has confirmed that if we compare a person aged between 30 and 34 with a person aged between 60 and 64, the person aged between 60 and 64 years old is 70 times more likely to die as a result of Covid-19 than the younger person is.”

Ms Foley said she accepted that teachers were disappointed in the change in the vaccine schedule, but she felt many accepted the science and that the priority must be the most vulnerable.

Ms Foley thanked teachers for their work, including the facilitation of oral exams, in what was a “grimly hard” year.

Unions’ statement

In a joint statement on Wednesday, the three teachers’ unions said the speedy vaccination of teachers was a logical step as part of a national strategy to keep schools open.

TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said: “A commitment was made to us – in correspondence from the Department of Education on 10th and 23rd February – that teachers would be prioritised for vaccination as part of the first third of the adult population. We urge the Department to do the right thing and to meaningfully engage with us on this issue.”

Irish National Teachers’ Organisation general secretary John Boyle said establishing a parallel programme – vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable alongside key workers –would protect the most at-risk teachers.

“The most up to date public health advice stated clearly that workers in crowded settings need to be prioritised. It’s common sense,” he said.

Government sources say any move to revisit the vaccination schedule could lead to a “free for all” among other professions seeking priority treatment.

On Wednesday, Siptu – which represents many workers in the childcare sector – called on the Government to ensure early years educators are treated on the same basis as teachers in the vaccine rollout.

Siptu’s head of campaigns Darragh O’Connor said early years educators do not have the ability to socially distance at work and deserve equal treatment with educators in similar situations.

“Given that social distancing is not possible when working with young children, the Government should also implement mass Covid-19 antigen testing across the early years sector, focusing on areas with the highest infection rates.”