Teachers criticise new age-based vaccine rollout and seek urgent meeting with Government

Trinity immunologist disagrees with Government moving away from occupation-based approach

People enjoy the warm weather in Seapoint, Dublin, as the Taoiseach says: ‘We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey.’  Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA

People enjoy the warm weather in Seapoint, Dublin, as the Taoiseach says: ‘We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey.’ Photograph: Niall Carson/ PA

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A decision by the Government to overhaul the allocation of Covid-19 vaccines has sparked anger and concern as the Cabinet agreed to begin easing lockdown restrictions from mid-April.

The Cabinet on Tuesday agreed the first general loosening of Covid-19 restrictions since the State entered Level 5 last December.

From April 12th, the 5km travel restriction will be lifted so that people can travel within their own county or within 20km of their home if they are crossing county boundaries.

Two households will be allowed to meet outdoors, more than 14,000 construction workers involved in building houses will return to employment and there will be a full return to school for the remaining secondary school children.

Furthermore, the national vaccination programme is to be changed to an age-based system, once those aged 70 years and older, the vulnerable and people with underlying conditions are immunised.

Trinity College Dublin immunologist Prof Kingston Mills said he did not agree with the move to an age-based approach from an occupation-based approach in the rollout of vaccines.

“There is a strong argument to be made for vaccinating people who are in more contact with people and thereby reducing transmission of the virus,” he said.

Prof Mills said he thought it “incredible” that the Taoiseach justified the move on the basis that it would simplify the rollout.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), which represents primary school teachers, said it would be seeking an emergency meeting with the Department of Education “to protest strongly against any downgrading of our profession on the vaccination list”.

Secondary teacher unions also said they were seeking urgent meetings ahead of planned school reopenings after the Easter break.

Garda and prison officer representatives have expressed disappointment too with the restructuring of the vaccine rollout.

The Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors (Agsi) said the decision shows “a scant regard for the unique and high-risk job that gardaí do in the policing of Covid-19”.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the move would simplify and accelerate the vaccination programme.

“There are many, many genuine and justifiable arguments that can be made in respect of many professions, if we are honest, but we want to make sure we can get vaccinations rolled out as quickly as we possibly can so we can get greater protection to those who need it most.”

Mr Martin also said that close to 3 million vaccine doses would be administered by the end of May, rising to nearly 5 million doses by early July and 6 million doses by the end of that month.

“We are on the final stretch of this terrible journey,” Mr Martin said.

Phased reopening

He said the Government would at the end of April examine the possible reopening of retail and hairdressers in May. Then, at the end of May, Ministers will assess whether the reopening of hotels, B&Bs and guesthouses will be possible the following month in June.

The Government has also announced that two people who are fully vaccinated may now meet up indoors, provided it is a fortnight or more since they received their second dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.

The announcement came as the State’s public health team warned the Government that the country was in a “precarious” place in relation to the prevalence of Covid-19.

Nphet letter

In a letter to Government, acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said the level of infection was “substantially higher than when restrictions were eased after previous waves of infection – approximately twice that experienced in early December 2020, and 50 times that in late June 2020”.

The team also warned that the dominance of the more transmissible B117 variant means that “for similar levels of close social contact, viral transmissions and effective reproduction number… will be 30-70 per cent greater than in 2020”.

The reproductive number is already at or above 1, they warned.

“The high starting point of 600 cases per day means that case numbers rise rapidly to over 2,000 per day within four weeks.

“Unfortunately, the significant ‘headroom’ that was available last summer when case counts were very low isn’t available now, and any increase in transmission will have significant impacts in a short space of time,” the team warned the Government.

New modelling from Nphet also suggests that vaccinations will quickly and significantly reduce risk over a short period of time from May 2021 to August 2021. The modelling shows that vaccinations will reduce mortality when those over 70 are fully protected but will have a smaller effect on hospital and critical care numbers until the wider population is vaccinated.

Meanwhile, an expert group convened by the Government has recommended the widespread use of rapid antigen tests, including the potential for mass rollout in schools by September of this year, although the group was split on the role of such tests in reopening society and economy.

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