The Government’s decision to change the Covid-19 vaccination priority list was not based on how those working in any particular profession are valued, the Minister for Education has said.
Addressing the Fórsa trade union's education conference on Friday, Norma Foley insisted the move to a system based on age rather than occupation was influenced by the latest scientific evidence, and aimed to reduce levels of serious illness and death from the disease.
The Minister told members of the union, which represents many special needs assistants (SNAs), that she understood the disappointment in the education sector and elsewhere about the change.
However, Fórsa accused the Government of “walking education staff up the garden path” by making commitments on vaccines ahead of the reopening of schools, only to then breach the agreement within weeks.
Andy Pike, head of Fórsa's education division, said there was "a vaccine lottery" in special schools which saw occupational therapists and physiotherapists working in them receive vaccines but SNAs working with the same students left without.
In her address to the conference, Ms Foley said that when the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) made its initial recommendations last December regarding the vaccination programme and priority schedule, it "committed to keeping the priority groups under review, considering new evidence, epidemiology and vaccine supplies".
“It is now considered that a person’s risk of experiencing very serious adverse outcomes from contracting Covid is primarily determined by age and that this outweighs factors relating to risk of exposure through occupation,” she said.
“New national and international evidence 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. As a result, NIAC has now recommended the vaccine programme move to an age-based rollout.”
In response to the Minister, Mr Pike said that since the change was announced there had been “a concerted effort” to portray education unions “as seeking the vaccination of their members at the expense of vulnerable groups”.
“This is untrue. It is a fabrication and a distortion of the clear position expressed by all of us. The gaslighting of teachers and SNAs only serves one purpose, to divide, to sow rancour, division and to avoid answering the pressing questions posed by staff and their unions.”
He suggested that teachers and SNAs along with gardaí and other groups could be vaccinated “in parallel with age groups once the medically vulnerable and the over 70 cohorts” have been covered.
Mr Pike said the fact some SNAs and staff in schools had received vaccines was “not some form of corruption or something underhand” but rather a recognition of their roles.
The conference passed an emergency motion calling for an end to the “vaccine lottery” within the special education sector.
Fórsa urged the Government to “accept the view of the HSE that SNAs are comparable to frontline healthcare workers and end these inconsistencies by rolling out the vaccine” to all SNAs, teachers, secretaries and caretakers working in the schools system.
Separately on Friday, the three teaching unions - ASTI, INTO and TUI - jointly demanded an urgent meeting with the Government and health experts over access to the Covid-19 vaccine for teachers.
They said this would “allow the unions to discuss, in detail, the concerns of teachers - including those who are pregnant or considered high-risk - in relation to primary, post-primary and special schools and explore creative solutions to guarantee our schools can remain open in the face of the ongoing pandemic”.
“The three unions are also anxious to secure clarity on timeframes and schedules for the vaccination of our respective members and discuss several anomalies in the vaccine roll out which have impacted on educational settings,” they said.
“It remains the view of the three teacher unions and of many other unions, associations, and representative groups that a parallel process of vaccination for those who live and work in crowded settings which are essential to maintaining public services should be organised alongside the age-based approach to the inoculation of those aged between 64 .”