Should teachers be prioritised for the Covid vaccine?

It’s clearly important to keep an open mind on whether educational professionals should be prioritised for the Covid vaccines, just as with other aspects of the rollout plan (such as the timing of the second jab). But for now, I’d argue against. Here’s why…

First, the evidence. In general, teachers have ‘slightly lower’ degrees of social contact and exposure to disease than other workers, despite some exceptions (nursery and primary teachers and those helping children with special needs). There is certainly no evidence that teachers are at greater risk of dying of Covid. If anything, the rates of death for educational professionals are lower than for others of the same age and sex.

The case for prioritising teachers therefore has to depend on the argument that this would help to reduce staff absences and thus keep schools open – with all the social and economic advantage that would bring.

I’m sympathetic to this argument. The vaccine may or may not prevent people who have been received it from spreading Covid, but it does at least make it less likely that they will suffer the worst effects of the virus themselves. The wider social benefit is already part of the justification for prioritising frontline health and social care workers and those working in care homes.

However, I don’t accept that just because we’ve already prioritised healthcare workers then we should also prioritise teachers (or some other occupation) too. The key point is that healthcare workers are a special case, because they tick three boxes: they are usually in closer contact with others (so more likely to catch and pass on the virus), they work with the most vulnerable people (such as patients in hospital and the elderly in care homes), and they are at far greater personal risk themselves (reflected in the higher death rates, at least of those working in social care).

There are also obvious risks in using the ‘public good’ argument to justify denying the vaccine to an individual who might actually benefit from it most, especially if they don’t have powerful lobbies behind them (such as the teaching unions).

Put another way, why stop at teachers? Why not shop workers? Or taxi drivers? Why should a young and healthy gym teacher be vaccinated sooner than someone older and perhaps less fit, who happens to work in a different sector?

There are advantages in simplicity too. Admittedly, teachers are at least a relatively easy group to identify and could presumably be vaccinated quite efficiently at their place of work. Nonetheless, rolling out the vaccine by age and/or underlying health condition is even more straightforward, and could reach more people more quickly. It would also pick up the most vulnerable teachers anyway.

Last but not least, the idea that prioritising teachers would not prevent others from receiving the vaccine is clearly nonsense. ‘Prioritising’ one group has to penalising others, or else it means nothing at all.

This piece was first published on 28th January 2021

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