Public-facing workers such as police officers, teachers and retail staff may soon be offered a Covid-19 jab, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has said.
Although the focus will remain on vaccinating frontline health and social care workers, care home residents, the clinically vulnerable and people aged over 70, the second phase of the vaccine rollout could involve those who are most likely to come into contact with those carrying the virus at work.
“My very strong instinct is that those who through their work may come into contact disproportionately with the virus, police, shop workers, teachers… should be prioritised,” Zahawi told Sky News.
By mid-February the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation is expected to decide which groups will receive the vaccine in phase two.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons last week: “We’ll be looking very carefully at those professions that will need to be prioritised in phase two of the prioritisation programme. We’ll look at, of course, teachers and police and others, but also we will look at shopworkers and we will make those decisions based on the data”.
More than 4 million people across the UK have received a first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine. All adults are expected to have been offered a jab by September.
There are growing calls from unions for the government to prioritise key workers in the next stage of its vaccination plan.
Last week, education secretary Gavin Williamson indicated that teachers would be a “top priority” in the next phase.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union said this was good news, but was concerned that transmission would continue in schools and colleges.
“This will help make schools/colleges safer for staff and reduce the disruption caused by Covid-19 absences. However, the issue of transmission of the virus among students and into communities will continue,” she said.
“As ever the devil is in the detail and the government has a poor track record on delivering on its promises. We look forward to hearing more detail about the timetable for this.”
The national chair of the Police Federation John Apter has also called for policing staff to receive priority access to Covid-19 vaccines after NHS workers and the vulnerable.
Writing for the Daily Telegraph, Apter said: “Police officers are out and about, selflessly dealing face to face with members of the public, because policing isn’t just about dealing with trouble and disorder, it’s also about helping people in their time of need, and it’s a 24/7, 365-days-a-year job.
“This is not about putting police officers before the most vulnerable and elderly in society or those on the frontline of the NHS. However, without the vaccine there is a real danger that more police officers will contract the virus, be off sick, spread it to their families and the general public, and thereby threaten the resilience of the police service across the UK.”
Without the vaccine there is a real danger that more police officers will contract the virus, be off sick, spread it to their families and the general public, and thereby threaten the resilience of the police service across the UK” – John Apter, Police Federation
Apter said that on top of non-Covid related demands, some police forces were seeing up to 15% of their officers off sick or self-isolating.
“This is getting worse and is simply not sustainable. We don’t have an endless box of police officers to deal with the regular daily demands, let alone the additional demands that policing the pandemic creates,” he said.
Paddy Lillis, general secretary at shop workers’ union Usdaw, said shop workers faced a high risk of catching Covid-19 because they were in close proximity to the public as well as working in an indoor environment.
He said: “From our conversations with employers, we are aware that the sector is currently suffering from incredibly high sickness absence rates as a result of Covid-19.
“So the second phase of the vaccine rollout must reflect the risks linked to occupation. Given the risks involved in their public-facing roles, retail workers should be one of the groups prioritised, so they are able to continue to support their communities throughout the rest of the pandemic.
“We also want other key workers in essential industries like food manufacturing and pharmaceutical distribution to be on the list of prioritisation. They cannot work from home and are at higher risk of infection because of the essential work they do, which should be acknowledged as part of the rollout programme.”