Special needs assistants need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 as soon as possible, says union

Home quarantine among compromises to be discussed by Ministers

The union representing Special Needs Assistants (SNAs), Forsa, has called on Government to ensure its members are vaccinated as soon as possible.

The union is unhappy that the vaccine rollout plan has been changed to one based primarily on age rather than occupation.

Andy Pike, head of the union’s education division, told RTÉ news on Monday: “Many of them will be working alongside healthcare staff, for instance in our special schools, where the nurses, physiotherapists and occupational therapists have all been vaccinated under the HSE rollout yet the SNAs working alongside them day to day will not be vaccinated.

Hospital Report

“That’s just not a sustainable situation where you vaccinate half your workforce but the other half you just ignore.”


Meanwhile, talks to defuse a Government row on mandatory quarantine will this week consider an expanded role for quarantining at home and how vaccinations might be used to reduce periods of isolation after travel from certain countries.

Senior Government sources said talks between officials would take place this week – most likely Tuesday or Wednesday – in an effort to find a compromise after moves to add several EU member states and the US to the list of countries eligible for mandatory hotel quarantine caused a serious political row last week.

The expansion of the list is aimed at minimising the risk of coronavirus “variants of concern” spreading from countries, some of which have strong travel links to the Republic.

Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly is understood to be committed to proceeding, notwithstanding opposition from other Government Ministers, most notably Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney.

“His view on this is not going to change,” said a well-placed source of Mr Donnelly’s stance. The leaking of the extended list of countries caused a significant row last week, viewed by some as an attempt to “bounce” the rest of Government into accepting its expansion.

There was significant diplomatic fallout arising from the leak, with one Government source saying it caused “consternation” in European capitals, while another said there was “real annoyance” over how the story had played out.

Sources said talks would focus on whether it would be possible to devise a “stronger quarantine-at-home system [and] a way that vaccines could be used to reduce the term [in quarantine]” for arrivals from some countries. The Department of Foreign Affairs is also likely to examine the legality of charging people arriving from other EU member states for hotel quarantine. The role of testing on arrival will also be examined.

Complex questions

The issue has raised complex questions for the Government. Linking vaccination to individual freedoms may be resisted by some European capitals, while hotel capacity, the criteria for inclusion of countries on the list, the review period for same, an “exit strategy” from the policy and the legal position regarding travel in the EU need to be addressed. Sources said countries that had put extensive hotel quarantine regimes in place had been forced to cap arrivals.

Government will also monitor the prospect of an early constitutional challenge to the quarantine system, arising from the case of two women who refused to enter mandatory hotel quarantine following their return from a trip to Dubai.

Government sources said on Sunday there will be consultation with Brussels as well, as fears grow in Europe over variants of concern, which are spreading in France and elsewhere.

Some in Government are concerned about the public health and political consequences of inaction. “It’s very dangerous for politicians to think they know more about the virus than medical experts and to effectively over-rule them,” observed a source.

Separately, the HSE has told hospitals they can provide surplus vaccines in exceptional circumstances to people who do not have conditions that could leave them at risk of severe illness or death as a result of Covid-19.

It told senior hospital staff in a letter last Wednesday that vaccination of anyone beyond group 7 – people aged 16-64 who had an underlying condition that puts them at high risk of severe outcomes – was not appropriate.

However, in exceptional circumstances and “as a last resort”, small amounts of vaccines could be administered to people outside the categories of those being medically vulnerable and at very high and high risk of severe illness or death.

It said “this should be done in a transparent, equitable and fair manner”.

Meanwhile, gardaí and teachers have urged the Government to introduce a separate Covid-19 vaccination programme to run in parallel with the new age-based system for the general public.

The general secretary of the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (AGSI) Antoinette Cunningham said on Sunday that her organisation was proposing that, in mass vaccination centres such as City West in Dublin, there could be separate streams that would provide vaccines side-by-side to both those in high-risk and front-line occupations such as gardaí and teachers, as well as to the general public based on their age.

Meanwhile, John Boyle, the general secretary of the primary teachers’ trade union, INTO, said a twin-track approach proposed by gardaí could easily be rolled out.

He suggested that given the scale of vaccination seen recently, gardaí and teachers could be vaccinated within a matter of a few days if the will was there. He said schools had been promised in February that teachers would be in the first 30 per cent of the population to be vaccinated.

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle

Martin Doyle is Books Editor of The Irish Times