Last Wednesday in Parliament following the debate on COVID and the call to lockdown the nation this was the debate on the theme of Covid-19: Educational Settings which began with a statement from Gavin Williamson. He touched on a number of themes but he did not include any reference to the subject of vaccinating educational workers. This may seem strange as most of us would want teachers and other staff to be well protected. Sadly later on in the debate he did not deny the comment from one of his own party members who stated “He has made his views on vaccination in schools clear, but I implore him to look again at vaccination”. This seems very hard to understand and many of us who are waiting for our vaccinations would prefer to see agencies such as the education and indeed others like the Police and Fire and Rescue to actually be placed on the priority list. After Gavin Williamsons statement there was a request from the Labour shadow Education Minister, Kate Green who included the following as part of her much longer response to him.
Staff in every part of our education system have faced a hugely challenging job and done extraordinary things to keep children safe and educated throughout the pandemic. Too often, though, the Secretary of State has refused to listen to their concerns or engage meaningfully with the expertise of professionals on the frontline. He can start to make it up to them today. Is the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation working on a strategy to vaccinate all education staff to keep them safe and get children back in the classroom? Does he believe that they should be prioritised for vaccination to keep them safe and to allow schools and colleges to reopen?
Gavin did respond to this theme but he clearly chose not to deal with the question in a direct manner. His response was a bit concerning based on what he stated about the need to protect teachers when schools are fully opened again, given that they are all very vulnerable now and it is clear that many schools are open now.
On vaccination, the Government have already set out the important need to vaccinate those who are most likely to be hospitalised if they catch this disease, and not just hospitalised but most at risk of death. Like the hon. Lady, and like everyone in the education community, I very much want to see the vaccination of all those who are tirelessly, every single day through the week and every week, keeping schools open for the children of critical workers and vulnerable children, when schools are fully reopened again, but coupled with this is a really important step forward, the mass testing programme that we have already started rolling out in schools. The mass testing programme in schools will be one of the largest testing programmes that this country has ever seen. It is ready to go—ready to be implemented—and it will be an important plank in ensuring that we can get schools opened at the earliest possible opportunity.
So after Kate Green the next comment came from the person who the speaker introduced as “We now go to the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, Robert Halfon”. He also included a call for vaccinations.
Finally, I welcome what my right hon. Friend has said about wanting to open schools again, and I know that he believes that strongly. Will he do everything possible to ensure that teachers and support staff are given priority for vaccination alongside NHS workers, so that we can get our schools open again sooner rather than later?
Sadly there was no response to this issue. So the next person was the SNP Education person who is Carol Monaghan. Her question included:
Teachers are fed up with politicians paying tribute to them one minute and sending them into unsafe environments the next. The risk posed to children in school is small—we have evidence for that—but as the Prime Minister said earlier, pupils can act as vectors, and let us be clear that if a member of staff in a school catches covid, there is increased strain on the remaining staff, so it should not be only high-risk staff who are vaccinated. Before we talk about opening schools, we need a clear position on vaccinations for teachers and school staff. The First Minister has committed to look at that. The Secretary of State has said that he will do everything he can to ensure that schools open, so will he ensure that teachers are a priority for vaccination so that schools can open with confidence?
Sadly Gavin ignored this just as he had ignored the call by Robert Halfon. Then we get a Conservative MP to ask a question which is responded to and then the Liberal Democrat Educational Spokesperson Daisy Cooper who asks this as the total content of her question.
Teachers and school staff have put themselves at enormous risk during the pandemic to keep schools open. Now that the Prime Minister has accepted that schools are the epicentre of high community covid transmission, it is essential that the Government give teachers and school staff the priority access to covid vaccination that they deserve. Will the Secretary of State look at adding them to category 7, as that would make teachers and school staff a top priority for vaccinations after those who are 65 and over, all those who are clinically vulnerable, and our NHS and social care staff?
Sadly his only response to this which was the first very precise way of adding in teachers was to focus on the testing aspect of what he claims is now in existence. Later in the debate there is a series of questions from the Labour MP Rebecca Long-Bailey who asks this at the end of her section.
Safety is the Secretary of State’s responsibility. Up to one in 50 people now have the virus, and the number continues to climb. Will he now listen to education unions and organisations, cancel BTEC exams, urgently take the same safety approach on nurseries as he has done with schools, and provide upgraded risk assessment guidance and vaccine access to all settings that are currently open to vulnerable and key worker children?
However no response came to this theme although Williamson did take the time to criticise her “At every stage—I think the hon. Lady understands this—we have put the safety and security of children and the workforce at the very heart of what we do….I think it is a little unfair of the hon. Lady to imply that the safety and security of staff and children are not at the heart of all our actions.” So a couple of voices later came from Alex Norris who is the Shadow Minister of Health and Safety. He points out:
The Secretary of State clearly prefers testing, rather than vaccination, as the means to make sure our teachers and learners will be safe when schools can reopen. The Prime Minister wants that to happen in six or seven weeks’ time. To have an adequate testing regime in every school by that period will require working around the clock in every minute available between now and then. Will the Secretary of State confirm that every school in my constituency has access to the support it needs to make sure that such a regime will be in place in time?
We now get a fascinating response from Gavin Williamson which rather destroys some of his claims earlier such as what he said to Kate Green “the mass testing programme that we have already started rolling out in schools. The mass testing programme in schools will be one of the largest testing programmes that this country has ever seen. It is ready to go—ready to be implemented” as he now states
We have already seen the mass distribution of testing kits, and all the equipment that is required, in schools and colleges that take years 7 and above. We will be looking at how we can roll out testing beyond secondary schools into primary settings and earlier years to support staff. I am as enthusiastic about vaccination as the hon. Gentleman is, but we are very much forward with our programme of mass testing for children, with all secondary schools receiving the initial deliveries. All schools will be getting that level of support in secondary settings, and we are looking at expanding that in primary settings as well. That would include all the schools in his constituency, as well as those in all our constituencies.
So then a few minutes later there is a response from Simon Fell who is the Conservative MP for Barrow and Furness
As someone who was campaigning to keep schools open until a few days ago, I recognise how difficult these decisions have been for my right hon. Friend. I want to press him on two points. He has made his views on vaccination in schools clear, but I implore him to look again at vaccination in SEN schools, where the line between teaching and caring is very blurred. Secondly, will he review catch-up funding for schools, especially in areas of deprivation, to ensure that it is targeted and that the attainment gap does not widen as a result of this lockdown?
Unfortunately there is no direct response from Williamson on the reference to vaccination. So a little while later there is a comment from Lucy Allan who is the Conservative MP for Telford.
I put on the record my thanks to all the teachers and support workers in Telford. My single question to my right hon. Friend is whether he agrees that just handing out laptops is no substitute for the support and guidance a child receives from a dedicated, committed teacher. Will he do everything in his power to enable teachers to return to school, including considering vaccinations?
So we get the final response from Gavin a few comments before the end of the whole debate that relates to vaccinations
I would very much like to add my thanks to all the teachers in Telford, especially as one of my daughters is very privileged to be able to benefit from those teachers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I echo her point that supporting children’s learning is not just about giving them a device; it is about how that device is used and how that child is supported, and the work we have undertaken over the past few months to support that through the Oak National Academy and the resources that are available is an important part of that. In terms of vaccinations and testing, we will always be pushing at the boundaries to maximise that for our education settings right across the country.
Which sounds great and if it was recorded in isolation from the rest of his statements might indicate he wants teachers, lecturers and staff to get vaccinated. However the rest of the responses indicate very clearly that he is not pressing for this beyond the provision for the whole of society.