A leading Conservative MP has said teachers should be made a priority for vaccinations as many schools face a delayed start to term due to fears of the faster spreading new variant of COVID-19.
Robert Halfon MP, who is the chair of the education select committee, told BBC Breakfast he wanted to see teachers prioritised now that the country has authorised the easier to administer Oxford vaccine.
He said: “What I also want to see is teachers, especially now that we’ve got the Oxford vaccine, that teachers and support staff are made an absolute priority for vaccinations because if we can make sure that they’re vaccinated and they’re safe, it’s less likely that schools will have to close.”
On Wednesday, the government announced the reopening of secondary schools in England will be delayed, and in some of the areas hardest hit by COVID-19 primary school pupils will also not return to their desks as planned next week.
Halfon said: “This two weeks has to mean two weeks – schools can’t just be a revolving door that never stands still, open one day, shut the next, because it’s very damaging to the life chances of these pupils.”
Discussing the rollout of testing in schools, he added: “If we can roll all that out and two weeks really means two weeks, then perhaps I can understand the decision that has been made, but we can’t continue to damage the life chances of children.
“We know that remote learning, whatever the efforts of teachers and schools, is sometimes quite patchy.
“We know that millions of children had barely any learning in the last lockdown and there is no substitute, no substitute at all for being at school.”
Currently, teachers, alongside all other key workers outside of the health and care professions, are not featured on the government’s priority list for the first phase of vaccinations.
This means teachers will only get vaccinated if they fall under the categories outlined in the priority list.
The nine-point list aims to vaccinate all people in the UK over the age of 50, all clinically vulnerable people over the age of 18 and, health and social care workers.
Hundreds of thousands of vaccines have already been administered in the UK, with almost all of them being health or care workers or people aged over 80.
Watch: England school reopenings delayed amid rising virus infection rates
The National Education Union (NEU) has been pressing the government to include all education staff over the age of 45 in the first phase of vaccinations.
The union wants to see teachers over the age of 45 given the same priority as NHS and care workers.
In a letter to education secretary Gavin Williamson on 17 December, the NEU said: “We are now calling on you to ensure the safety of school staff, and as a by-product to help secure continuity of education, by including school staff on the vaccination priority order alongside health and social care staff.
“We believe it would be practical to vaccinate all pupil-facing education staff aged over 45, as well as all those with other vulnerabilities, in the first few weeks of next term.”
The changes to the start of the new term means students in exam years will return to secondary schools a week later than intended, from 11 January, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on 18 January.
Primary schools in 50 areas within London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire, and Hertfordshire will not reopen for face-to-face teaching to all pupils as planned next week.
Children of key workers and vulnerable youngsters will still be able to attend lessons in primary and secondary schools.
Speaking to Sky News on Thursday, Williamson said one of the main reasons the return of students to secondary schools was being delayed was in order to give every school the chance to properly implement a mass testing regime.
He said he was “confident” the extra time would be enough for secondary schools to sort out their testing regime with equipment arriving on 4 January.
“At every stage, we’re making sure that children are able to benefit from getting a brilliant education that we want all our children to get,” Williamson said.
Watch: Gavin Williamson says schools will be ready for coronavirus testing