'NO scientific argument' for teachers to be prioritised for Covid jab

'NO scientific argument' for teachers to be prioritised for Covid jab

February 24, 2021

‘NO scientific argument’ for teachers to be prioritised for a Covid jab, says Britain’s chief vaccine adviser as he warns cherry-picking groups could slow and complicate roll-out

  • Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chair of the JCVI, said teachers not at risk
  • Warned complicating roll-out could leave more vulnerable people exposed 
  • His comments will anger teacher’ unions and senior Labour politicians

There isn’t a strong scientific argument for teachers to be prioritised for a Covid jab, the UK’s chief vaccine adviser said today.  

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said data had shown categorically that school staff are not at an increased risk of catching or falling ill with the disease compared to their peers.

He warned singling out professions could ‘slow’ and ‘complicate’ Britain’s vaccine roll out, leaving people who are more vulnerable to coronavirus unprotected for longer. 

Professor Harnden said it meant the decision on who would be prioritised once over-50s have been jabbed would be a ‘political’ one, and reiterated the JCVI’s decision was ‘based on the science’.

His comments will anger unions and senior Labour politicians, who have for months been calling for teachers, along with other key workers, to be bumped up the queue when extra vaccine capacity becomes available. 

Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, Professor Harnden said: ‘In terms of the disease, there isn’t a strong scientific argument to immunise teachers [unless they qualify by age, or underlying health condition.

‘In fact there are other occupational groups which are usually more at risk than teachers.

‘So then it becomes a political decision, which is why the JCVI have decided that we’ll be steering our advice based on science and it will be up to politicians to decide on what you do in terms of teachers.

‘But I would say that one of the key reasons that this programme has been so successful is because it has been simple, it’s been deliverable, and it has been rolled out very quickly and people understand it.’

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said there isn’t a strong scientific argument for teachers to be prioritised for a coronavirus jab

 Currently only people over 60, anyone over 16 with a serious condition, frontline NHS and care home workers and carers of disabled people are officially eligible to receive the vaccine in England. The devolved nations are working to slightly different schedules

He added that picking out certain groups would make it more complicated, and risks slowing the programme down which would in turn mean exposing people to the virus when they otherwise might not have been.

Professor Harden also told the committee the JCVI had decided the priority list for phase two of the vaccination programme and this is ‘with ministers at the moment’. It is likely to continue on an age-based approach.

Britons could get their Covid vaccine in the form of a pill in the future, according to the lead scientist behind Oxford University’s jab.

Professor Sarah Gilbert told MPs today her team were focusing their efforts on new, injection-free ways to deliver the vaccine and stimulate a better immune response.

The group are exploring delivering the jab using nasal sprays, in the same way the flu jab is given to children, or in tablet form, used in polio vaccination.

Not only would it be great news for people who have a fear of needles, it could help alleviate supply issues that have hindered rollouts internationally. 

Professor Gilbert said using pills or nasal sprays may better target immune cells in the lungs, throat and nose, making them even more effective. 

She told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee: ‘As you know all the vaccines have been given at the moment as intramuscular injections.

‘That is not necessarily the best way to provide protection against a respiratory virus infection, where we want the immune system to be active in the upper respiratory tract and then in the lower respiratory tract, which is where the virus is causing the infection.

‘We have flu vaccines that are given by nasal spray and this could be a very good approach in the future to use vaccines against coronaviruses.

‘It’s also possible to consider oral vaccination where you take a tablet, that will give you that immunisation, and that would have a lot of benefits for vaccine rollout if you didn’t have to use the needles and syringes.’

Only over-65s, anyone over 16 with a serious condition, frontline NHS and care home workers and carers of disabled people are officially eligible to receive the vaccine in England. The devolved nations are working to slightly different schedules.

The priority list was drawn up based on how vulnerable people are to falling seriously ill and dying with Covid. After those groups are done, the priority list moves down by age.

But today adults with learning disabilities were added to the top six priority groups after a campaign by Jo Whiley to get her sister jabbed.

The JCVI, which decides on who gets the life-saving jabs first, said people with learning disabilities of any kind should be bumped up the pecking order.

They will be added into priority group six, which includes all adults with a long-term health condition that puts them at higher risk of severe illness. 

BBC radio DJ Jo Whiley called for people with learning disabilities to get vaccines sooner after her 53-year-old sister, Frances, who has a developmental disorder and lives in residential care, was hospitalised with Covid-19 this month. 

Whiley praised today’s policy change as ‘absolutely crucial’ and said she was ‘delighted’. She said Frances is now back at home and is ‘doing great’.

Vaccinations in group six are next in line and they take higher priority than people aged between 50 and 64, who make up groups seven, eight and nine.

Anyone who is on the GP Learning Disability Register will be eligible for a vaccine earlier than planned, the JCVI said, regardless of how severe their disability is. 

This register is open to anyone with a diagnosed learning disability. These include autism and Asperger’s, William’s syndrome, global developmental delay and cerebral palsy.

People with Down’s syndrome were already in the clinically extremely vulnerable group so part of the population targeted with vaccines by February 15.

Public Health England said at least 150,000 people would now get a vaccine sooner than expected in order to ‘prevent as many deaths as possible’.

The Office for National Statistics revealed in a report this month that people with learning disabilities had an almost four times higher chance of dying if they developed Covid-19, compared to people without the difficulties. 

Professor Wei Shen Lim, Covid chief at the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, said: ‘The JCVI’s advice on Covid vaccine prioritisation was developed with the aim of preventing as many deaths as possible. 

‘People who are severely affected by learning disabilities are at higher risk of death from Covid-19.

‘As the severity of any disability may not be well recorded in GP systems, JCVI supports the NHS operational plan for anyone on the GP Learning Disability Register to be invited now for vaccination as part of priority group six, and to reach out in the community to identify others also severely affected by a learning disability but who may not yet be registered.’

Until now, many people with learning disabilities other than Down’s syndrome had not been included on the vaccination priority list.

They would have been incorporated in the ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ shielding group if they had other physical health problems, regardless of their learning disability, but may not have got priority access if they were otherwise healthy.

Jo Whiley, 55, highlighted the gap in the rollout when she said she had been offered a vaccine before her sister, despite not being in a high risk group. 

And Frances, who is 53 and lives in residential care because of a developmental delay caused by Cri-du-Chat syndrome, became seriously ill with Covid-19 and was hospitalised earlier this month.

Whiley said the family had discussed end-of-life care for Frances last week and feared she might die, but that her sister was discharged from hospital on Tuesday.  

She told the BBC today: ‘This is a great day – I am so relieved. I’m so happy for all those people who’ve been living in fear.

‘I’m very grateful to the Government for listening, because it’s a very complicated situation and it’s very difficult to categorise people according to their disability, it’s very, very tricky and that’s become apparent I think over the past few months.

‘And so this is clear, this encompasses everybody, and all those people who have been feeling very neglected, feeling like they don’t matter, that we don’t care, now know that we will be protecting them.

‘This is absolutely crucial and I could not be more delighted. This is a massive step forward.’   

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