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Vaccine priority: All three teacher unions agree to ballot for industrial action if government doesn't meet demands

The three unions tabled a joint motion on the issue.

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ALL THREE TEACHERS’ unions have passed a motion calling for prioritisation in the vaccination programme and a ballot for industrial action, including strike, if the government does not meet their demands.

The three unions – the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO), Association of Secondary Teachers Ireland (ASTI) and Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) – had agreed to table a joint motion on the issue at their annual conferences, which began yesterday.

The motion condemns the recent changes to the priority listing for teachers within the national vaccination programme and demands the government re-instates education staff as a priority group within the national vaccination programme.

The motion also demands early vaccination within the overall cohort of education staff of pregnant teachers, those in higher risk categories and those who work in special schools, special classes and home school community liaison teachers.

If the government does not agree to prioritise teachers in the programme by the end of the current school year, the motion mandates a ballot of members for industrial action up to and including strike.

Following the passing of the motion, ASTI general secretary Kieran Christie said it is “simply not acceptable” for the government to tell teachers they are valued as essential workers and then “expect them to stand in line with those who have remote facilities available to them”.

“Second-level teachers spend their day in classes of up to 30 students, often in poorly ventilated buildings,” he said. “They mix with approximately 250 young people each day. Social distancing is challenging at best.”

INTO general secretary John Boyle said a parallel programme targeting priority workers should run in parallel with the age-based roll-out. 

“Establishing a parallel programme – vaccinating the elderly and vulnerable alongside key workers –would protect our most at-risk members at the earliest opportunity followed in quick succession by those who are at slightly lesser risk,” he said.

The point that appears to have been lost on Government is that we simply want to ensure that they follow the science. The most up to date public health advice stated clearly that workers in crowded settings need to be prioritised. It’s common sense.

Michael Gillespie, general secretary of the TUI said there is particular concern for members who are pregnant or who are at risk because of an underlying health issue, as well as those working in special schools and special classes. 

“Once again, it is important to state that a commitment was made to us – in correspondence from the department on 10 and 23 February – that teachers would be prioritised for vaccination as part of the first third of the adult population,” he said.

“We urge the department to do the right thing and to meaningfully engage with us on this issue.”

Speaking this morning at the TUI’s conference, Education Minister Norma Foley said she appreciated that the change in the vaccination schedule to an age-based roll-out had been “a cause of upset and disappointment” for many in the education sector. 

“These past 12 months living in the shadow of Covid have not been easy for anyone,” she said.

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“It has required considerable sacrifice and flexibility from all of us. We have had to adapt to new information, new evidence and circumstances as they present themselves.”

The minister said the decision was underpinned by evidence that age is the single strongest predictor of whether a person who contracts Covid-19 will be admitted to hospital, or ICU or die as a result.

I know that this change in direction is difficult for many in the education sector. I understand that.

“The vaccine programme has never been about valuing one group or profession over another,” she said.

“The guiding force behind it has always been to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Clear scientific evidence now tells us that older people, regardless of occupation, are more susceptible to the virus. If we truly wish to protect the most vulnerable, we must act proactively on the basis of this scientific evidence.”

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