Keir Starmer’s plan to vaccinate teachers at half-term is full of holes

The Labour leader’s proposals to help get children back to classrooms is eye-catching but flawed.

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Schools in England will not reopen before 8 March, Boris Johnson has announced, confirming – if confirmation were needed – that the current lockdown in England won't begin to be lifted before that date. This is also the provisional target date for schools in Northern Ireland to reopen, pending discussion by the executive. The devolved governments of Wales and Scotland have said that schools there won't reopen until mid-February at the earliest (this will be reviewed tomorrow in Wales).

Meanwhile, the Labour leader Keir Starmer has called on the Westminster government to vaccinate all teachers and support staff in the February half-term "as part of a national effort to get children back in the classroom". This is part of Labour's wider call, announced yesterday, for a "faster, wider vaccination programme" in which key workers at risk of exposure to the virus are prioritised alongside the over-50s and those with underlying health conditions.

This would involve adding critical workers to the priority groups 5-9 (i.e. those aged between 50 and 65, as well as those with underlying health conditions) on the list set out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). Labour has suggested that the JCVI would draw up the exact list, but has suggested this would include police officers, teachers, social workers, prison staff and those working in supermarkets, among others.

[see also: Why reopening schools is far harder than Conservative MPs suggest]

It's safe to say the proposal has flopped. With the best of intentions, the Labour Party has had to push back against criticisms that this plan would amount to vaccinating a healthy 25-year-old social worker before a 60-year-old who is also a critical worker, or before another 25-year-old with a chronic respiratory disease. Labour has insisted this wouldn't be the case, because they want the weekly vaccination roll-out to be expanded, instead of swapping certain patients for others. But that's far from guaranteed, given the limiting factor is how quickly the doses can be manufactured. Simply calling on the government to meet its own target of vaccinating 15 million vulnerable people by mid-February doesn't make it more likely to happen.

It is also worth remembering that a police officer with a heart condition, or an older teacher, or a young supermarket worker with asthma, will already be prioritised for a vaccine in the current plans.

Of course, I don't think anyone would disagree that those in front line roles who have been more at risk throughout the pandemic should be prioritised ahead of those of us, of the same age and health status, who are lucky enough to be able to work from home. But the JCVI has already said it will consider factors such as exposure risk and occupation in the roll-out's next phase. It's not a straightforward question, whether to muddy a health-based risk assessment with an exposure-based risk assessment, and is probably not one Labour should have drawn conclusions on before seeing a thorough analysis of the risks and benefits.  

Labour is trying to be bolder amid criticism that Keir Starmer is quite a cautious leader of the opposition. There is more to gain from a bolder approach, but also more to lose.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

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