Garda representative body holds emergency meeting on changes to vaccine schedule

Second-level teachers’ union says talks with Norma Foley on matter ‘unsatisfactory’

Trade unions representing gardaí, teachers and special needs assistants have criticsed the Government’s decision to change its vaccine priority schedule. Photograph: EPA.

Trade unions representing gardaí, teachers and special needs assistants have criticsed the Government’s decision to change its vaccine priority schedule. Photograph: EPA.

 

The Garda Representative Association (GRA) held two emergency meetings on Thursday during which the possibility was raised that members of the force might decline to respond to certain situations due to the risk from Covid-19.

No definitive decision was taken but it is understood representatives raised the issue of whether gardaí should be expected to put themselves in harm’s way without a Covid-19 vaccine where the risk of exposure to the disease is high.

There remains strong anger among gardaí, teachers and education staff over the Government’s decision to revise the Covid-19 vaccination schedule. The system is now being based on age rather than profession.

The Irish Times understands there has been discussions about the possibility of the three teacher unions tabling an identical motion at their annual conferences next week criticising the Government’s decision and possibly raising the prospect of ballots for industrial action if their members were not vaccinated over the next couple of months.

However, it is understood tyhat no final decisions were taken on action by either the gardaí or teachers and further strategy meetings are expected to be held in the coming days.

It is understood that while the possibility of gardaí declining to respond to certain situations due to potential risks of contracting Covid-19 has been discussed at meetings of their representative association, a significant number of members have reservations about any such move.

One topic of discussion was whether placing unvaccinated gardaí in situations which may expose them to Covid-19, such as arresting a Covid-19 positive person, may be a breach of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005.

Joint letter

The heads of GRA and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) handed in a joint letter to the office of the Taoiseach seeking an urgent meeting on the issue of vaccines.

It is understood GRA general secretary Philip McAnenly has been invited to meet the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) to discuss the garda concerns. This meeting is expected to take place on Friday, after which the GRA will reconvene.

Second-level teachers on Thursday night said talks with Minister for Education Norma Foley about the change to the vaccination schedule were “unsatisfactory”.

The Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) said the meeting was insufficient to encourage it to back the planned system of vaccine administration.

The Asti said teacher unions, management bodies, Ms Foley and representatives from her department, and public health representatives including NIAC officials had held talks on Thursday evening.

“ASTI representatives found the meeting, which was hastily organised, unsatisfactory. The information presented was not sufficient to convince the ASTI of the rationale supporting the revision of the vaccination roll-out programme. Teachers and other school staff are frontline workers and with high levels of contacts each day and often working in poorly ventilated classrooms of up to 30 students.”

The trade union Fórsa, meanwhile, has asked the Government to review its decision to remove special needs assistants (SNAs) from the vaccine priority list and to include them under ‘category nine’ of its revised vaccine schedule, which includes people aged 16-64 who work in crowded settings.

No distancing

In a letter to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, the union’s head of education Andy Pike said that SNAs worked in crowded settings where social distancing is not possible.

“There are few other groups outside health and social care who work on a consistent basis providing intimate care without the ability to maintain social distancing,” he said.

Mr Pike said SNAs provided the same care to students as staff in HSE disability services.

“In special schools, healthcare staff including nurses, occupational therapists and physiotherapists have all been vaccinated, whilst the SNAs who work alongside them have not,” he said.

“SNAs were promised by your Government that they would be prioritised for receipt of the vaccine as part of the first 30 per cent of the population, their counterparts and colleagues in health and social care have received the vaccine, SNAs have fulfilled their role in reopening schools they now feel that they were misled and have been badly let down by the Government decision to exclude them from priority status.”

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) urged the Government to “reverse the downgrading of the teaching profession on the vaccination list”.

Speaking after the meeting with Ms Foley, TUI general secretary Michael Gillespie said he had expressed “the shock and disappointment of our members and also the huge frustration over the manner of the announcement, which was made without warning or consultation”.

“We were seeking, and did not receive, a persuasive rationale for treating teachers, who work in busy, crowded classrooms, in the same manner as workers who are able to work from home,” he said

“In huge numbers, members have already contacted us to state that they feel dismayed and demoralised by this development.”