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'Sucker punch': Unions criticise new vaccine strategy but Varadkar says decision based 'on the science'

Last night, the Tánaiste said that the previous strategy might have slowed the vaccine programme down.

Image: RTÉ

Updated Mar 31st 2021, 8:34 AM

TÁNAISTE LEO VARADKAR said that the decision to change the vaccine allocation strategy is based “on the science” and the best medical advice.

Yesterday, the government announced a change to the strategy that will see the removal of some categories in the original 15-cohort strategy and see most people in the country vaccinated by their age.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Prime Time last night, the Tánaiste said that the advice from the National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) was that the current system “might actually slow down” the vaccine rollout once supply ramps up next month. 

NIAC advised the government that moving to an age-based system would be fairer and easier from an administration perspective.

The Taoiseach also defended the changes saying it will “simplify and accelerate” the rollout of the vaccination programme.

Under the provisional groups before today’s change, the rollout progressed by job category such as essential workers and ‘people in occupations important to the functioning of society’, alongside age categories.

With the new plan, however, once everyone aged over 70, those with underlying health conditions and vulnerable groups are vaccinated, people will begin to receive vaccines on the basis of age.

The decision has provoked anger from the likes of gardaí and teachers, who had been due to receive vaccines at an earlier stage in the programme. 

Varadkar said that trying to conduct the vaccine programme by professions could create a situation where there 50 or more cohorts of people, which would slow the process down. 

“Say if there’s a 35-year-old garda or teacher, are they more at risk than a 60-year-old factory worker?” Varadkar said, adding that the factory worker would be more at risk based on the science.

He added that he understood there would be criticism from trade unions and certain professions over the new plan, and said that the government and health experts would engage with these sectors to explain the rationale. 

‘Sucker punch’

Speaking today on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Frank Thornton from the Garda Representatives Association (GRA) said that the move had come as a “sucker punch” to frontline gardaí. 

“Over the last 12 hours, the feeling and morale of frontline members has been absolutely on the floor,” he said. “Given our role in society in policing during this pandemic.”

He described a meeting earlier this month with the Minister for Justice, where he said McEntee agreed that gardaí should receive vaccines once the most vulnerable have been vaccinated.

“We’re now being told we’re no more at risk than someone working from home,” he said. 

On the same programme, Social Democrat co-leader Róisín Shortall said she wanted to see evidence to support the government’s decision.

She added that there was too much of an emphasis on the public adhering to the guidelines rather than government action in several areas to stem the spread of Covid-19.

The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation, meanwhile, said it was “extremely concerned” by the news.

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INTO general secretary John Boyle said: “For months now we have heard the Government say, time after time, that education is the top priority for government.

“How then can teachers be treated with such blatant disregard as frontline education workers.

“This move undermines the efforts of our education staff to keep our primary and special schools open safely.

“This is unacceptable and the government must prioritise the safety of teachers and all key workers once the vulnerable and elderly are first protected by vaccination.”

With reporting from Orla Dwyer, PA

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Sean Murray

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