Teachers’ unions are threatening potential strike action unless the Government agrees to prioritise their members for vaccination by the end of the current school year.
The move follows an agreed motion which is being placed before the annual conference of the three teachers’ union on Wednesday.
Delegates at the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) and the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) voted in favour of a motion this morning. The Association of Secondary Teachers’ Ireland (ASTI) is currently debating the motion.
The motion commits the unions to ballot for industrial action, “up to and including strike action”, if the Government does not agree to prioritise teachers by the end of the end of June.
The move means there is little prospect of disruption to the current school year and any action would likely take place in the new school year.
However, given that public health experts say all adults will be vaccinated by September, it is doubtful whether any industrial action will take place.
The motion demands that the Government “re-instates education staff as a priority group within the national vaccination programme”, considering the essential nature of their work which requires them to be in daily contact with a large number of persons from a large number of households.
It also demands early vaccination within the overall cohort of education staff, for “pregnant teachers, those in higher risk categories and those who work in special schools, special classes and home school community liaison teachers”.
It adds that in the event that Government does not agree to schedule by the end of the current school year, members across all three unions will be balloted for industrial action, up to and including strike action.
Minister for Education Norma Foley has again defended the decision to change the vaccination programme from an age and occupation-based list to an age-based scheme.
Speaking on RTÉ radio’s Morning Ireland, Ms Foley said that it had “never been in the gift” of the Department of Education or of any politician to make a promise on the vaccination programme.
The vaccination list was compiled by National Immunisation Advisory Committee (Niac) and was “100 per cent independent of Government”.
The Minister pointed out that “the science” last December had put the education sector in the “first third” of those to be vaccinated. It had subsequently emerged that the chief concern was that age was the strongest predictor.
The science was very clear, she added. This was not a value judgment on any profession. “It is simply the science that is available to us now.”
When asked about the pledge that had been made to teachers prior to the return to school earlier this year, Ms Foley said that her department had engaged with the Department of Health and had accepted at every stage that the actions of Niac were independent and based on science.
“At every step we indicated that we would accept and adopt the science when it was presented to us.”
Niac had been very clear that age was the basis of the greatest vulnerability and that the older should be catered for first. Dealing with Covid-19 was a learning curve, she said.
The Minister said she accepted that teachers were disappointed in the change in the vaccine schedule, but she felt many accepted the science and that the priority must be the most vulnerable.
Speaking in response to Ms Foley yesterday, INTO general secretary John Boyle warned that teachers must be vaccinated quickly if the Government was to secure their continued co-operation.
The decision to remove teachers from the priority queue showed “blatant disregard” for members’ safety.
“Teachers must be reinstated as a high-priority group to be vaccinated early to ensure that schools can remain open safely,” he said.
He said the Government “broke its promise” in writing that teachers would be in the first third of the population to be vaccinated.
“If Government wants our cooperation to continue, it must fulfil its earlier commitment to our members by vaccinating them quickly,” he said.
“Minister, you need to strengthen your resolve and fight for a twin-track approach to the vaccination programme with age cohorts on the right and essential workers, including those critical for keeping schools open safely, on the left.”
Separately, Ms Foley confirmed that antigen testing was to be rolled out on a pilot basis in schools.
She said it would examine the potential for this rapid testing to be used as an additional measure to sustain the opening of schools.
Ms Foley also said she hoped that supply panels for substitute teachers – which provide speedy access to cover – would be established on a permanent basis to support schools.
These currently provide cover to approximately 2,300 schools by employing almost 330 additional substitute teachers on a full-time basis.