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The question of whether key workers should be fast-tracked for Covid vaccinations has been a simmering topic for several weeks. But after evidence to the Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday, will the whole issue now boil over?
Priti Patel made plain last month that she wanted police, firefighters and other “front line workers” given greater priority (after Met Police chief Cressida Dick said she was “baffled” why her officers weren’t already). Keir Starmer made a big political play of demanding teachers should get the jab at half-term.
The idea is popular too. An Opinium/Observer poll found almost 94% of the public think some workers should qualify for vaccine priority, either alongside or above some older age groups. More than half (54%) backed prioritisation for teachers, and a similar proportion (53%) backed the move for police.
Yet thanks to some candour from the deputy chair of the Joint Committee on Vaccinations and Immunisation (JCVI), we now know the idea looks dead in the water. In another newsworthy session of the sci and tech committee, Professor Anthony Harnden let slip that JCVI had completed its advice for Phase 2 of the vaccine programme to follow jabs of all over-50s after mid-April.
“We have decided it,” he said, clearly taking questioner Zara Sultana and chair Greg Clark by surprise. “It is with ministers at the moment.” And just as importantly, Harnden made plain what the Phase 2 advice would be: stick to priority by age and underlying health conditions, not occupation.
A “very careful” look at the data, including the ONS school survey of infection, found that teachers weren’t at any greater risk than the general public, the prof said. In fact there were other jobs with a much higher risk, like noisy meat processing plants where people had to shout and little ventilation.
He could have added that shopworkers are also at much higher risk than teachers as they work with adults not low-risk children (but low-paid shopworkers, unlike public sector staff, have few politicians lobbying for them). Still, given teachers are now facing the huge workload of setting exam grades this year, they may continue to think Gavin Williamson has not batted hard for them in Whitehall.
Prof Harnden stressed that making age the key determinant for priority was simple, easily understood, deliverable and quick. But he also said “if you start picking out certain groups” according to occupation you slow down the entire programme and “some people will be exposed to the virus and actually suffer harm that there would not have been otherwise”.
“Ultimately we need to stick with the science, and you politicians need to decide the other things,” is how Harnden summed up his advice. Given that the government has long said the JCVI advice is paramount, it’s difficult to see how Boris Johnson would risk giving any key worker priority now, not least as choosing one group would open up a can of worms. Jabs not jobs is what matters.
Of course, the government’s hope is that the vaccination rollout will continue its rapid progress so much that few people will complain, even cops, teachers, firefighters and others. Everyone over 18 is officially due to be jabbed by the end of July and unofficially government insiders think they’ll be done much sooner.
Just imagine if June 21 is not only the day all lockdown restrictions are removed, but also the date by which the entire adult population gets their first dose?
Boris Johnson joked at PMQs that Keir Starmer’s inconstant approach to policy on Covid was like a “druidical rocking stone”. But you can bet that if unlockdown is matched by every-adult vaccination on the day of the summer solstice, the PM himself will be dancing like a stoner at Stonehenge.