Covid-19 Vaccination Roll-out DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Tim FarronMain Page: Tim Farron (Liberal Democrat - Westmorland and Lonsdale)
(1 month, 2 weeks ago)Westminster Hall
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I very much welcome this debate, and I am grateful to my many constituents for signing the petition—I believe Twickenham was about 13th on the list of signatories. Like many other Members, I have received many emails from school staff and early years staff urging me to participate in this debate and to press for the prioritisation of those staff.
One thing that strikes me is that a number of the staff—I very much agree with them—said that they accept that health and care workers, absolutely, and the most vulnerable, so those who are very old and at highest risk, should be front of the queue. Generally, I do not think that the discussion is around those top four priority groups. There is probably more of a discussion to be had on some of the lower groups. The JCVI has said that, after all its priority groups, it is a matter of policy as to whether other groups, such as teaching staff, are prioritised.
The Liberal Democrats have proposed that teaching staff should perhaps be in group 7, but that is up for discussion. Indeed, if we look at some of the data on the lowest priority group according to the JCVI, the 50 to 55-year-olds, they are at very little higher risk compared with the rest of the general population. I would contend that there is a policy discussion to be had on some of those lower groups that the JCVI put forward, and on whether teaching staff and early years staff should go in there.
I must declare an interest as the mother of a two-year-old and a six-year-old. I am utterly delighted that childcare settings are open: my two-year-old is a handful, and my husband could not home-school our six-year-old daughter if my son was at home, so I am very grateful to the staff in early years settings who put themselves at risk day to day.
I appreciate that vaccinating early years staff and teaching staff will not necessarily prevent the spread of disease, because we do not yet have the data to show that; it will merely give them protection, but that is important. We are all united, across the House, in that we want to see schools return as soon as possible. The most disadvantaged are being hurt, and that is not just the very poorest on free school meals. Over the Christmas holidays, I had a conversation with a mother of three who does not qualify for free school meals, but is just above that line—just about managing. She could not afford devices for her kids in the first lockdown, so she was having to borrow to be able to home-school them—it really is hurting the most vulnerable, because the devices for home schooling are not out there as widely as they should be. It is also having an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health, a subject that I am passionate about and that has already been raised today. Before the pandemic, one young person in 10 had a diagnosable mental health condition; that figure has already risen to one in eight.
I particularly want to shout out for special educational needs and disabilities. By definition, those settings have to remain open, because they have the most vulnerable children. I have had a number of representations from staff and governors in SEND schools in my constituency; one member of staff from Clarendon Primary Centre in Hampton pointed out that, like in early years and some of the younger primary settings, pupils with special educational needs and disabilities struggle to socially distance. The staff provide personal care, including changing, to a wide age range. Some pupils spit and bite; most pupils cannot tolerate the invasive nature of a lateral flow or PCR test. His school has over 60% attendance and his class has 80%—he says, “We are fully open.” More than 50% of pupils in that school are free school meal or pupil premium kids.
It is quite clear that in such settings additional protection for teachers and other school staff is very much warranted, so I urge the Minister to revisit some of the lower-level groups on the JCVI priority list. As I tried to allude to in the main Chamber earlier, there is a desire to have a 24/7 vaccination programme as and when supply allows. The workforce is there to deliver it, so why cannot we include teachers and early years staff?
Our children and young people are really suffering in this pandemic. We owe it to them—and to the people who are taking care of them and helping them to develop into young adults—to protect them as best we can.
Thank you, Sir David, for allowing me to make a few comments. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on bringing forward this debate and setting the scene very well, as she always does with any issue she brings forward. I have previously highlighted with the Secretary of State for Health the need to include our teachers in the priority roll-call for vaccines. We did that just last week in the main Chamber.
The hon. Lady rightly highlighted that the education of children is paramount. Children are currently out of school and are being taught at home; that is not what families and children need. To expect a mother with no degree in teaching to understand how to teach a child the necessary tools of learning puts stress on the family, and too many children are missing out on learning. Some parents can home-school and others cannot. That is not disrespectful; it is a fact of life.
I have spoken to several teachers who are concerned about the fact that some parents are not logged on to the online learning tools for primary school children. Messages have been sent and encouragement has been given, yet the fact remains that some parents and carers are simply overwhelmed with home schooling. Add to the mix the parents who have to work from home and who are struggling to maintain their work life as well as spend adequate time on their children’s schooling. The pressures are immense, and it is very difficult on households. The pressure on teachers from trying to maintain contact and check the work of 30 pupils online is extensive. It is imperative that our children are back in class being taught by those who know what they are doing. It is clear that vaccinating teachers and teaching staff is necessary to keep them safe and keep our children in school.
I understand that the vaccine has not been tested for children, and there is little that we can do there. However, vaccinating school staff will help curb the spread of this virus. In my estimation, that is an essential part of our fight against covid. It is really important that teachers in nurseries and special needs schools also have the opportunity to have the vaccine—doubly so when we look at special needs schools, which are operating at full numbers and where staff are expected to teach with no protection around incredibly vulnerable children. We all know them; we meet them every day. I asked the Minister last week in the main Chamber to consider adding teachers to the priority vaccination list, and I am asking again for that to be done in Westminster Hall—it is probably one of the coldest places on the planet; it is so cold that we could hang beef in here and it would not go off—that is the truth. That is a fact of life; ask any butcher.
Today in the Chamber, the Minister replied to the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) on the issue of teachers and the vaccination. Education is one of the cornerstones of our society. That can continue only if our teachers are at full strength and are able to do their jobs, and vaccination is key to that.
Another issue that I want to highlight, as other Members have done—in particular, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron)—is the availability of the vaccine in rural areas and the need for support for rural GP practices that have thousands of patients on record. The patients who are most vulnerable need the best vaccine. We must make use of our incredibly capable armed forces logistics branches to arrange and implement in rural communities what could well be a mammoth task for GP practices individually. The fact is that people in towns will be quicker to receive the vaccine, but those in rural areas and in constituencies such as mine and that of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale really need to have equality in the vaccine roll-out. The precision with which our military operates is second to none, and I believe that it is a resource that we have yet to make full use of.
My mother is 89 years young, and she received her vaccine at 9.40 this morning. It is a happy day for us all, and I am very pleased. I have a sense of relief. Although I have told her to remain at home and be careful, there is a definite ray of hope. We need such hope being felt by every family member of the vulnerable in our society, and I believe that our military—our Army of the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—can support our GPs, who are under pressure, with the standard flu jab programme. It is interesting to read in the papers today that the flu jab—it is really good news, which we should welcome—has been so successful that the number of people dying of the flu has reduced dramatically. The figures for Northern Ireland are very clear.
We have the vaccine, and we have more knowledge than we did this time last year. It is now time to ensure that every person who wants to receive the vaccine will be able to do so in a timely manner. For those who are uncertain about it, or who are certain that they do not want to receive the vaccine, we must ensure that their wishes are respected and that the Government place no restrictions on those who exercise their free choice. Again, I ask the Minister to confirm that and put it on the record.
I am excited about the vaccine—I believe it is very hard not to be. We are in a better place today. We can have some confidence for the future. You and I, Sir David, are confident because we have faith, but we also have confidence in what the Government are doing, which is really important. I am sure the Minister will not let us down. There is a fully trained and obvious ready-to-go resource—let us use the military to get the vaccine out and make a difference to our battle against covid.