Elaine Loughlin: Norma Foley has science on her side in battle with unions

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee's advice to prioritise vaccination on an age basis may be imperfect and blunt, but it is also objectively fair
Elaine Loughlin: Norma Foley has science on her side in battle with unions

Minister for Education Norma Foley has told the INTO annual conference that the Government is unlikely to revise its decision on the new vaccine rollout. File picture: Sasko Lazarov/Rollingnews.ie

Education Minister Norma Foley may have reopened the door to teachers in January, but this time she will have to keep it firmly closed.

If she were to budge, the Government would have everyone from the gardaí, to family carers, and shop workers banging the same door and all would have equally valid cases to make on the vaccination rollout.

The National Immunisation Advisory Committee's (NIAC) advice to prioritise vaccination on an age basis may be imperfect and blunt, but it is also objectively fair.

The realigned priority list will protect the most at-risk citizens first, which in turn should lead to a speedier reopening of our economy.

In the wake of the Coombe and Beacon hospital scandals and controversies around the online portal for healthcare workers which allowed non-frontline individuals to register for a vaccine, the age-based system is least prone to circumvention.

Teachers may have been buoyed up by their victory at the start of the year, when having announced the reopening of schools, Ms Foley and her department were forced to retreat into talks with unions.

The unions had urged the Government to postpone the resumption of special education classes and the return of Leaving Certificate students until improved safety measures were discussed with them.

At the time, Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) general secretary John Boyle said the fundamental problem was conflicting health messaging, which had left many school staff totally unconvinced that the school environment was safe under the current conditions.

As the community infection level peaked and hospitalisation figures soared, teachers were understandably extremely concerned about returning to school at very short notice.

Protracted discussions, including some failed attempts and false dawns, eventually lead to a resolution being found and the return of pupils to the classroom on a phased basis.

But this time, the Government and Ms Foley have science behind them.

This evidence was rolled out by Health Minister Stephen Donnelly when he strongly defended the move to age as a basis for vaccine prioritisation instead of occupation.

"A review conducted by NIAC found that the only occupation or sector showing a significant increase in risk from Covid is healthcare," Mr Donnelly told the Dáil.

He said the evidence presented to the Government on the risk of severe outcomes based on age was "clear" and "very stark".

"Comparing someone aged 20-34 to someone aged 50 to 54, the 50 to 54-year-old is three times more likely to be hospitalised, 10 times more likely to end up in intensive care, and 15 times more likely to die from Covid.

"If we compare someone aged 20 to 34 to someone aged 60 to 64, which will be part of the first new-age cohort, the 60 to 64-year-old is five times more likely to be hospitalised, more than 20 times more likely to end up in intensive care, and more than 70 times more likely to die," said Mr Donnelly.

As the three teaching unions threaten industrial action by way of a shared emergency motion, which will be voted on Wednesday, Ms Foley has so far held firm.

Virtually addressing the INTO annual conference, she said: "This new schedule has disappointed many in the education sector, as it has those in other sectors. I understand that sense of disappointment."

But she went on to state that the list has been altered based on the latest medical and scientific evidence available.

This time, it appears this time the minister is not for turning.

The Irish Small and Medium Enterprises Association, Isme, put it more bluntly when they warned that doing anything other than standing up to the education unions would "open a free-for-all, where Government is forced to deal with the loudest, most threatening groups, rather than those presenting the greatest clinical need".

In a statement, the representative body went on to say that they have had to deal with pressure from their own members but have "politely refused to entertain" the calls to seek vaccine priority.

"Although teachers, like all workers, enjoy the legal right to withdraw their labour, this does not mean that it is proper or morally defensible to do so in a case such as this," they said.

Announcing the plan to ballot members, Mr Boyle said it appeared Ms Foley and her Government did not care about teachers who contract the virus, or who suffer the "excruciating and debilitating" impacts of long Covid.

"Rather, concern appears only to be with decreasing hospitalisations and taking the easy rather than the fair approach to vaccination."

Covid is not fair, it has taken lives and denied people the ability to properly mourn loved ones; it has made hundreds of thousands of people unemployed and shut businesses for more than a year.

Ms Foley put it well when she told teachers today that for the past 12 months we have had to be flexible and resilient in our approach to this global pandemic.

"We have had to adapt to new circumstances and challenges as they present themselves. And throughout it all, we in the education sector have been guided by public health and medical experts," she said in her online address.

Yes, Coivd is not fair and changing the vaccination rollout has been viewed as unfair not only on teachers but others who have been moved down the list. But initiating industrial action which would yet again put children out of the classroom is also deeply unfair.

The minister has no choice, she must stand by her own words: "This is not a value judgment on any given profession. This is simply the science."

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