By Michelle Devane and James Ward, PA
The Taoiseach has defended the decision to overhaul the State's Covid-19 vaccine priority list, saying it will “simplify and accelerate” the nationwide rollout.
The Government has been heavily criticised over its move to abandon the current priority list and proceed based on age, once the most vulnerable and people over 70 have been inoculated.
The country’s largest teaching union and the Garda representative union are among those who have voiced their frustration at the new plan, as the change means key workers in essential jobs and the education sector who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure to the virus will lose prioritisation.
We have learned... you run the risk of actually slowing down the vaccination programme
Micheál Martin told a press conference on Tuesday evening: “Older teachers, more vulnerable teachers, any particular professional workers in terms of age would be vaccinated more quickly under this model.
“But critically we have learned, even from cohort four that where you don’t have clear databases identifying categories of workers, you run the risk of actually slowing down the vaccination programme, particularly as higher volumes of vaccines come into the country.
“The Health Service Executive has been looking at this from an operational point of view, and they feel this is a much more effective, faster model, which will facilitate and accelerate a rollout of the vaccines.
“The older, older you are, the more vulnerable you are to illness and mortality so it’s fairer in that respect, on an age basis and doesn’t distinguish one profession versus another.”
It means for the first time that we can give better information to the very reasonable question - when will I be vaccinated?
The National Immunisation Advisory Committee advised the Government that moving to an age-based system would be fairer and easier from an administration perspective.
The Department of Health said the change to an age-based approach will lead to higher volumes of vaccinations and “better meets the objective of protecting those at highest risk first”.
In a statement Health Minister Stephen Donnelly said: “The move to an allocation strategy focused largely on clinical risk, that is age and medical conditions, makes Ireland’s vaccination programme more efficient, more transparent and fairer.
“We have the benefit of learning from our own experience over the past three months, and what has been shown to be most effective internationally.
“It means for the first time that we can give better information to the very reasonable question ‘when will I be vaccinated?’”
...It is essential teachers+all key workers should continue to be prioritised once vulnerable people and the elderly are vaccinated. INTO will be seeking an emergency meeting with the Department to protest strongly against any downgrading of our profession on vaccination list...
— INTO (Irish National Teachers' Organisation) (@INTOnews) March 30, 2021
However, the move means groups such as teachers and gardaí, who have lobbied to moved up the prioritisation list, will now have to wait.
The Irish National Teachers’ Organisation said it was “extremely concerned” by the news.
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.”
Gardaí will not forget the way we have been treated during this crisis
The Garda Representative Association (GRA) said many of its members will be “dismayed” by the decision of the National Immunisation Advisory Council (NIAC) “to ignore the risks involved in policing the pandemic”.
GRA president Frank Thornton said: “Without consultation or transparency, this drastic change in policy will see our members continue to be exposed to a high-risk working environment.
“Our concerns over the health and safety of our members has never been as high.
“We have continuously stated the elderly and most vulnerable in society along with frontline health care workers are priority and our position remains the same.
“Members of An Garda Síochána should be categorised with other frontline workers including those in health care given our unique role in the fight against Covid.”
“Gardaí will not forget the way we have been treated during this crisis.
“We are the second pillar of the response to the pandemic and we are now being told that we are no more at risk than someone who can work from home.”
He added: “The treatment of members of An Garda Síochána is shocking. We have endured so much, given so much, and revived little or nothing from this Government.”