Thursday, 1 April 2021
Vaccination Programme and Covid-19: Statements
Since last summer, one of the things that has been repeated time and again has been that education is a priority for this Government. It is a priority for the Opposition as well. We have supported many of the measures that the Government has brought forward in the educational sector, albeit we would have liked to have seen an awful lot of them go further. At times, we listen to what the Government says and believe that there is priority for education.
There was a request for greater prioritisation to ensure that schools remain open. The decision to remove prioritisation for SNAs and teachers leads one to despair of whether, in truth, there is any real prioritisation. I do not know how the Minister can say that with a straight face. The decision that has been taken in recent days on the vaccination prioritisation has pulled the rug from under so many front-line workers. They are angry and frustrated. Commitments were made to front-line workers, not only teachers and SNAs but bus drivers, childcare workers and others who work in settings of high risk, who were at least acknowledged in the original prioritisation. It is profoundly wrong and it undermines the commitment that was given to them. That was the basis on which they agreed to re-enter service in schools and childcare facilities, despite the fact that they were more risky than other scenarios. While age is clearly an enormous determinant of risk, there is a significant difference in the risk between an accountant or clerical worker working from home in their 40s and an SNA, teacher, childcare worker or special education teacher who is working face-to-face with children and young people in a crowded setting. Relatively speaking, whether they are 22 or 42 the latter groups are clearly at a higher risk. It is profoundly wrong.
Much has been said about what is needed to get schools open and to keep them open because it is not just about getting them open. It is welcome that schools are back, as education is vitally important. I heard reports of what the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, said and I hope that is not just for show. I hope it leads to pressure within the Government and that the Minister listens to his backbenchers who are asking for change. Let age be the primary consideration, but priority should be given to front-line workers in key categories to ensure that services remain in place. I hope the Minister will listen to us, those workers and anyone who is arguing for them. I also hope the Government is having a real discussion on this.
The final point I want to make is about confidence. We all want vaccination to succeed as we all want to get to a time when we can resume some kind of normality, but this business of people jumping queues, a lack of checks, and private schools connected to private hospitals being given priority is profoundly undermining confidence in the equality of everyone's entitlement on the basis of risk and the other considerations to get access to a vaccine and to healthcare, which is fundamentally what this is about. This is important. I do not want to see confidence in the process being undermined; I want to see it restored. These anomalies and people jumping queues and failing to ensure fair priority must be addressed if confidence is to be restored.