The Irish Times view on vaccination: the case for age-based priority

Teachers’ unions claim they have been ‘downgraded’, but the changes are backed by compelling public health evidence

Nurses  administer Covid-19 vaccinations at the HSE Vaccination Centre in the Aviva Stadium to people with underlying medical conditions. Photograph: Alan Betson

Nurses administer Covid-19 vaccinations at the HSE Vaccination Centre in the Aviva Stadium to people with underlying medical conditions. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

The Government’s decision to change the vaccination roll-out schedule from one which prioritises frontline workers to an age-based approach has caused controversy among teachers, special needs assistants (SNAs) and gardaí all week. The fact that the changes come in the middle of the annual conference season for teachers’ trade unions has served to ratchet up the rhetoric.

Union leaders have variously accused the Government of showing “blatant disregard” for their members, a “brutal and sudden kick in the teeth” for public sector workers and “breaking promises” which were made on the roll-out plans earlier this year. Teachers’ unions voted to ballot for industrial action unless they are re-prioritised by the end of the school year.

At one level, their disappointment and frustration is understandable. They were told under the initial roll-out schedule that they would be prioritised in the first 30 per cent of the population to be vaccinated. This is no longer the case.

If anything, a drip-feed of stories of teachers and SNAs in special schools being vaccinated ahead of schedule in recent days – owing to confusion within the HSE over whether these staff were frontline health workers – has given fresh impetus to the unions.

However, the Government’s revised plan is driven by the latest national and international evidence. This confirms that age is the single, strongest predictor of whether a person who contracts Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital or die as a result of infection.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee has advised that a person aged between 60-64 is 70 times more likely to die as a result of the virus compared to a person aged 30-34. These findings provide a compelling public health argument in favour of the roll-out changes.

For unions agitating for the decision to be reversed, it is doubtful that the changes will make much difference. Under the old plan, the vaccination of teachers, for example, was set to begin in mid- to late-May. This meant there was little likelihood secondary teachers would have received their jabs before the end of the school year. Under the latest plans, it is anticipated that 80 per cent of adults will receive their first injection by the end of June. As a result, the vast majority of teachers will have had their first dose, and many will have had their second, by the start of the new academic year.

In the midst of the pandemic, public health advice has evolved as we learn more about what steps are most effective at keeping the population safe. The State reponse should always be driven by the best available science and public health expertise. This approach has served the education sector well so far. Now is not the time to break with that advice.

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