COMMENT – Race For Vaccine Is On, And It Could Become Ugly

This week, Gavin reflects on the row over the opening of schools for children with additional educational needs, and warns that similar issues could soon befall the rollout of COVID vaccines as well.

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Are you a “key” worker?

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In both formal and informal ways, over the past few weeks, I have seen calls for many groups to be given priority access to the COVID vaccine. These include postal workers, teachers, SNAs, Leaving Certs, retail staff, Gardaí, carers, home-help workers, childcare workers, bus drivers and bus escorts, and even inter-county GAA players.

Every group has their arguments in favour of their cause, and I’m not going to cast judgement on any of them. But someone will. And that job hasn’t been carried out yet.

The plan for the rolling out of the COVID-19 vaccine sees an as-of-yet-unspecified group of ‘Key Workers’ listed as the sixth group to receive the jab after, in various orders, residents of long-term care facilities, everyone aged over 65, and other healthcare workers. But the plan does not outline who exactly is ‘key.’ Mark my words – a row is brewing. Some groups, who sees themselves as deserving, will be sidelined when this comes to pass. Hopes of many will be dashed because, ultimately, some are more ‘key’ than others. A ‘let them all in’ approach won’t work either – that will mean everyone else, who is on the outside, will have to wait longer for their vaccines.

When that row eventually erupts, I’ll be reminded of the events of the past couple of weeks, namely the failure to date to secure a return to schools of students with additional education needs. Not once, but twice, families of those children have looked forward to a return to school, only for that plan to be pulled. Most tragically, the children themselves have had their hopes dashed in this regard. EVERYONE involved should look at their own actions, and how they contributed to this, but as usual in politics the buck stops with government, and with the Minister.

I have great sympathy for the current government, and any government who are being held to a high standard during a pandemic. But I make no apologies for holding any member of our government to that high standard, including Norma Foley. The situation with COVID-19 has presented a more difficult problem in 2021 than we had expected, so my issue is not necessarily with whether schools should re-open, but rather with communication.

When families are told that these schools will re-open on January 21st, or on January 11th, they need to re-open. When that announcement is made without the approval and buy-in of stakeholders, in particular teachers and SNAs and their unions, that’s unforgivable. The rug has been pulled out from under the feet of thousands of families across Ireland, and it’s not good enough. Senator Martin Conway – a government representative – said this week it’s “nothing short of disgraceful” and, as Deputy Carey conceded on Tuesday’s show, it better be right the next time.

For the staff, I appreciate the safety concerns. They are legitimate. I have concerns about attending work each day, and I’m not in the same position as those workers who would be in close contact with children each day. But I do think that the public deserve some clarity from the teachers’ unions on when they might feel that schools are safe once more. What EXACTLY is needed to give that assurance? Despite a huge amount of media coverage of this issue, and despite asking this question on air myself, I still don’t know that answer.

A deal will be worked out, I’m sure, but those involved in the ongoing talks may well have bruised egos and an additional grudge or two. This saga won’t be forgotten for some time.