Monday 11th January 2021

(3 years, 6 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee in this debate. Some may note that, owing to the latest restrictions and recommendations from Mr Speaker, many hon. Members are unable to attend Westminster Hall in person. For reasons beyond the comprehension of the sensible, there is a reluctance by the Leader of the House to make these debates accessible virtually to all Members, so I ask the petition’s signatories not to be disappointed if they feel that their voices have not been heard; I have been contacted by many Members of Parliament and hope to reflect what many of them have told me.

The initial petition to be debated is entitled “Prioritise teachers, school and childcare staff for Covid-19 vaccination” and was set up by Charlotte. It has close to 460,000 signatures and the number is rising all the time. A newer petition related to the debate has also been tagged, which calls for first responders to be prioritised alongside NHS workers. It was set up by Laura Sylvester and had nearly 49,000 signatures when I last checked.

I want to be clear from the start that this debate is not about leapfrogging others who deserve the vaccine; it is about ensuring that our teachers, school staff and first responders are able to access the vaccine—it is them on the frontline every day delivering vital services. When I spoke to Charlotte, a primary schoolteacher from High Peak, she was so mindful of the necessity of vaccinating those people on the list already, but teachers want consideration of where they are placed on that list. Only NHS staff and healthcare workers have been considered as priority groups by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, but I and many others think that overlooks the role that teachers and frontline workers have already played during the pandemic, and the contribution that they will continue to make.

The advice from the JCVI on the priority groups for a covid-19 vaccine, as stated in the petitions, does not include school and childcare workers. The petition therefore calls for those workers who cannot distance or use personal protective equipment to be kept safe at work by being put on the vaccine priority list, and for that to be adopted into Government policy. Some correspondence that I have received since the fact of the debate was published stated that to hold such a debate was a waste of parliamentary time, and that to question the conclusions of the JCVI was to undermine its decisions. However, the role of Parliament is to debate and to scrutinise the Government. The Petitions Committee is a vehicle for genuine first-hand concerns to be expressed on behalf of everyday people. I am honoured to be able to do so.

As a former teacher, I recognise that education is the greatest gift that we can give to our future generations—those who will be facing the consequences not only of the pandemic but of Brexit. My own son has had his centre-assessed GCSEs and now his AS-levels affected. It is far from what any of us ever imagined would happen. How do we get children back into school and in front of their teachers?

We know the consequences of missing school, especially for the most deprived, and those consequences lead to a widening of the attainment gap. Research by the charity Teach First suggests that school closures risk further contributing to that problem through the digital divide: 84% of schools with the poorest pupils do not have enough devices or internet access to ensure that pupils can learn from home, compared with 66% of schools in the most affluent areas. Access to technology, family home environments and economic pressures suggest that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to miss out on learning as a result of being at home.

There needs to be a plan, there needs to be a back-up plan and there needs to be a plan for the unthinkable. Getting teachers, and therefore pupils, back into school must be one of the key aims for this Government, and that should be reflected in the prioritisation of the vaccine. Think about how much contact a teacher has with human beings in one day, where there is no social distancing or it is practically impossible. Teachers see vast amounts of children in a week, according to a normal timetable, so there are many opportunities for the virus to spread.

We need to give children and young adults the best chance in life, and that always starts with their education. I can tell anyone who has not worked in the classroom environment that it is hard to comprehend the challenges that our teachers face every day. We cannot expect teachers to work in an unsafe environment. Schools have spent a lot of time making their environment safe, and the consensus among teachers is that they cannot give their best through online teaching. Teachers do what they do to inspire, develop skills, build confidence, entertain and impart knowledge. They want to be back in the classroom and to change the lives of the children they teach and want to teach.

The NASUWT has presented evidence showing that staff working in both secondary and primary schools are far more likely to be infected than the wider community, with rates of virus prevalence among school staff being three to four times higher than the prevalence rate for non-teachers. I welcome the announcement made last week by the Welsh Government about prioritising teaching and support staff in special schools. Those schools have remained open throughout the pandemic to support children classed as vulnerable. It is right that they are able to continue to deliver the excellent, vital support that they provide to families of children with additional needs. The Government must also give due consideration to those who deliver childcare in nursery settings. They are the carers of our youngest children. Those settings do not traditionally fall within education, but they must not, because of that, be forgotten.

It is pertinent that England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jenny Harries, suggested that teachers and other frontline workers could be included in the next stage of vaccinations, which will cover the next five priority groups, including the over-50s and those with risky underlying health conditions. Many MPs from across the House agree that the reconsideration of the JCVI prioritisation schedule is necessary. Can the Minister give assurances that the JCVI will reconsider vaccine reprioritisation for certain professions? Will he be able to lay out the comprehensive plan for school leaders and local authorities that will provide the necessary financial and logistical support to implement the plans?

Although I have spoken mainly to teachers, the additional petition talks about the UK Government and the JCVI considering prioritising first responders alongside NHS carers and workers. To put that request into context, it is helpful to highlight the fact that, across the UK, there are just over 210,000 first responders and emergency service workers. It is not beyond the wit of man to make them a priority. Because first responders have an

“increased level of exposure with the general public every day and lack of regular testing”

they are at a higher risk of contracting covid-19 and transmitting it to the public. Losing our first responders on the frontline puts the public at risk of not being served when they most need it. Prioritising vaccines will help to ensure

“protection and safety of their health whilst carrying out their jobs on the frontline”

and lower

“the risk of easily contracting/transmitting COVID-19 to co-workers, their families, and the general public”.

The reprioritisation of the JCVI list is necessary. Government cannot just say, “This is what the JCVI says,” and that that must therefore be set in stone.

However, there is another consideration that the Government could use to address their concerns. That is laid out in “A Plan for Vaccine Acceleration” published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change on 3 January:

“Almost 1 million people in the United Kingdom have received their first-dose vaccination against Covid-19. This is a Herculean effort from the NHS, which must be applauded. But in the situation we face, it is unfortunately not sufficient.”

That is not a criticism of the NHS. It is a reflection on the planning and strategy of the Government. If the Minister and the Department would consider following that plan for vaccine acceleration, there might be some hope on the horizon of our children returning to education and frontline workers carrying out their jobs fear-free, because our teachers and frontline workers, and our children, deserve better.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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Colleagues, there are a number of changes. First, you will have noticed that there is a statement in the House, so the Minister and shadow spokesman are still detained there. I am sure that colleagues will be kind to the two Members standing in their place, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), but everyone should bear in mind that they did not expect to be in that position. Furthermore, a number of Members who are on the call list have disappeared and not come back, and are not in the Chamber, so the order in which I call Members will be Opposition, Government, Opposition. I shall try to indicate the order to you. I call Craig Williams.

--- Later in debate ---
Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine
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I do not disagree. The hon. Lady probably thinks that I am working up to disagreeing with the premise of the petition. I am not. The point that I am making, before I agree with the premise, is that there are so many competing groups and, while supply is lumpy—supply is limited at the moment—we have to prioritise, which is why phase 1 has to be right.

My overriding message is this. Let us get on with it. Let us have this national programme. Let us implement the vaccine delivery plan. And then we will put all these groups in. With regard to teachers, I absolutely agree: if reopening and keeping open schools is the Government’s priority, and the Westminster Government say that it is, surely it is good sense, let alone good politics, to vaccinate educators. I say “educators” because of course it is not just teachers, but support workers and all the other people who make schools happen. That must make sense, but I will just say that if we are going to have schools reopened at the end of half-term, we have almost, now, lost the opportunity to do that, because we have to give people the jab and then allow three weeks for it to take effect. That now cannot happen before the end of half-term, so there will be a gap, however we cut this particular cake.

Let me finish by talking about early years, which people would expect me to do as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on childcare and early education. The JCVI obviously identified its groups, and some early years workers will be covered by the groups involving the clinically extremely vulnerable and

“all individuals aged 16 years to 64 years with underlying health conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease and mortality”.

It is not the case that no teachers and no early years workers will be covered in phase 1; of course some will be. With regard to phase 2, the JCVI states:

“Vaccination of those at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 due to their occupation could…be a priority in the next phase.”

Its suggested list includes teachers, and I believe that early years workers should be a high priority, based on two key factors.

First, unlike schools, the early years sector is currently open to all children, meaning that staff are coming into contact with similar numbers of children as they were prior to the latest national lockdown. Secondly, it is of course impossible to socially distance from babies and young children. They need close personal care, such as changing nappies, treating cuts and just giving them a cuddle when they bump themselves. All early years settings are currently open to all children, and of course that is vital in providing continuity of care and early education to the youngest children, but with regard to supporting those settings and keeping them open and keeping those staff safe, I think that they have a strong case. Why are they treated differently? That was what the hon. Member for Leeds North West said. Well, early years workers are a fairly mild bunch. They do not have a powerful trade union often speaking up for them. They have only me and a few other people in the House of Commons. And that is possibly the reason why.

This petition makes a lot of sense. I think that, for every person who has signed the petition, that comes from a good place. I think that it comes from a will to see schools, educators and young people treated fairly and kept safe from this awful pandemic. Anything that we can do to roll out the vaccine delivery plan, which the excellent Minister, now in his place, will ensure happens, will move us out of this nightmare, and then maybe I can stop being a grinch about 2021.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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The debate finishes at 7.30 pm. Five colleagues wish to speak, and I want to call all of them, so I suggest that everyone speak for about five minutes. That will give the Minister and his opposite number time to respond to the debate.

--- Later in debate ---
Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
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I thank the Minister for his response and I understand the time pressures that we are currently under and the reason he could not be here earlier, but I remind those watching online that the two debates are both live, and they can still add their names to the petition. Also, on 15 December, UNICEF called for teachers to be prioritised, and we must realise that there are difficult decisions that force difficult trade-offs. They were not asking to be in the top four vaccination priorities, but they need consideration. That begins with safeguarding those who are responsible for opening up the future—looking after the teachers who will give a future to our future generations, and to our children, who have missed so much. I accept all the debate today, and thank the Minister and everyone who took part, but we need to move forward and give the matter that consideration.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petition 554316 relating to roll-out of covid-19 vaccinations.

David Amess Portrait Sir David Amess (in the Chair)
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If you have not already done so, colleagues, would you wipe the microphones? I apologise for the ridiculous freezer that this room is. I will complain to the authorities yet again. I am sorry if anyone becomes unwell as a result—this is not acceptable.