Key workers and those in customer-facing jobs may be next in line for Covid-19 vaccination once the 25 million most vulnerable Britons have been inoculated, a senior government adviser suggested on Wednesday.
Speaking for the first time about “phase two” of the vaccine roll-out – which comes after all those aged 50 and over have received their jab – Professor Wei Shen Lim, chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation’s Covid working group, said the type of job people do would help determine their place in the vaccine pecking order.
He said that teachers and health care workers would be a clear priority but that others would be considered too.
“There are many key workers and we’ve received requests from many professional groups who are all concerned and want to have to vaccine. Very rightly so,” said Prof Lim, who was speaking to journalists after the approval of the Oxford University-AstraZeneca vaccine.
“Phase two of the programme will take into account the range of other professions and key workers who would benefit from vaccination, and protection, particularly if they can’t avoid travelling to work for instance, or they might be exposed at work,” he said.
The phase two priority list had yet to be completed, added Prof Lim, but it would be given to ministers in the next few weeks.
Earlier this week Tory MP Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons Education Committee, urged the Government to do everything possible to keep schools in England open – including “rolling out vaccinations as a priority for all those in schools”.
Unions, including Unite, NASUWT and GMB, have also called for key workers – teachers, bus drivers and security guards – to be prioritised for vaccinations.
“I’m going to go out on a limb and say that teachers and other school staff should be a priority for vaccination,” added Prof Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Professor of Psychology & Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge. “If the government really are determined to keep GCSEs and A levels this summer, then so should students in years 11 and 13.”
Jon Richards, head of education at Unison, added on Wednesday: “Ministers should also ensure any moves to extend the vaccine priority list must cover all school staff and not just teachers.”
The phase one priority list is driven largely by clinical risk – age and pre-existing conditions – with the oldest and most frail going first. Exceptions include care home workers and front line NHS staff who are also receiving the vaccine early.
This group is estimated to include about 25 million people and, according to Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, the entire cohort should be vaccinated by “late spring”, meaning mid to late June.
However, pressure is mounting fast from the UK’s remaining 30 million adults – essentially all those between 16 and 50.
Vaccination will not just provide protection from the virus but will allow greater freedom of movement, especially for international travel.
In Israel, for example, the government has promised a “green passport” to everyone who has received a double dose of the vaccine. The certificate will allow residents to travel abroad without a PCR test, exempt them from some mandatory quarantines and offer access to cultural events and restaurants when the current national lockdown has been lifted.
Whitehall insiders say there is talk among ministers about introducing a similar system in the UK.
It is likely that NHS workers and teachers will be at the top of the phase two priority list, with the 40-50 year old age group going first.
However, there are many other key workers. The government lists eight categories in total, ranging from those involved in keeping public transport running to the security services and those selling and distributing food.
Where these key worker roles entail possible exposure to the virus, rather than working from home, it is likely they too will be prioritised, again with older cohorts going first.
At the bottom of the list – those who will receive the vaccine last – will be nonessential workers and others who can remain at home.
“The first priority has been direct protection and that seems sensible,” Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told the Telegraph.
“Protecting people who may be at lower risk of serious disease by virtue of being younger and healthy, but who are still at high risk of getting the disease is an obvious second priority.
“If the new variant turns out to affect children a lot more, then teachers may consequently be at higher personal risk, but I’m not sure we have data to say this is, or is not, true,” he added.
In the United States, where experts have long linked vaccine prioritisation to occupation, guidance was again updated last week.
Although individual states will ultimately set priority guidelines, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said that those 75 and older and essential workers should be at the front of the queue.
This list includes first responders, teachers, food, agricultural, manufacturing workers, members of the US Postal Service, public transport drivers and supermarket staff.
“I think those who are at risk of being most severely ill and then those frontline staff [and] first responders who have most contact with the potentially infected… should be prioritised for vaccination,” Dr Julian Tang, a clinical virologist at the University of Leicester, told the Telegraph.
He said NHS ward staff, ambulance drivers, supermarket staff, transport workers and teachers should be included list of key workers.
“Can’t we do both in parallel?” Dr Tang added. “I think we can, now that we have the approval for the AstraZeneca vaccine – as long as they can manufacture enough vaccines to supply both groups.
“But the logistics and practicalities of supplying and administering the vaccine nationally may make it difficult to cover multiple groups who are equally prioritised, in parallel,” he said.
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