Labour pushes government to prioritise vaccination of key workers

Elliot Chappell

Labour has argued it is “reasonable” to ask the joint committee on vaccinations and immunisations to consider prioritising key workers in the Covid jab roll-out programme as the NHS looks likely to reach its mid-February target.

Following a parliamentary statement on the vaccine from Nadhim Zahawi this afternoon, Labour pressed the issue of vaccinating key workers again as shadow health minister Alex Norris responded to the government minister.

He said: “We fully supported the government in prioritising those at the greatest risk of dying in those first four categories, but as we move on to categories five to nine, it is reasonable to ask the JCVI about including key workers.

“Data shows that those who work closely with others and are regularly exposed to Covid-19 have higher death rates than the rest of the population.

“By prioritising these workers alongside the over 50s, 60s and people with underlying health conditions we can reduce transmission further, protect more people and keep the vital services that they are providing running including the reopening of schools.”

He asked the government minister to confirm whether, since Labour first called for the reappraisal of priority groups last week, he had asked the JCVI to consider the proposal and whether he would do if not.

Keir Starmer asked Boris Johnson during Prime Minister’s Questions last week to add school staff to the first phase of the vaccination programme and told him to use the February half-term to vaccinate all teachers and school workers.

“This programme really is the light at the end of the tunnel,” the shadow health minister added today. “Our NHS has delivered and we must support it to continue to do so by making the right policy decisions.”

Zahawi said: “The JCVI looked very closely at both BAME and of course other considerations, including profession, and came down very clearly on the side of age as the deciding factor in terms of people’s risk of dying from Covid.

“This is a race against death, hence why we’ve got the nine categories which we are going through and will continue to do so. Now, a number of professions will be captured in those categories…

“I certainly think it would be wrong to change the JCVI recommendation because one to nine is 99% of mortality. I think when we get into phase two then we would welcome a debate and of course ask the question of the JCVI.”

Norris also asked Zahawi to confirm how many care home staff have received their first dose of the Covid jab, and to outline what steps the government plans to take to encourage those who have not yet done so.

He pressed the minister for assurances on the supply of the vaccine ahead of the start of second jabs being administered, from April, while the NHS continues to maintain the roll-out of the first doses to lower priority groups.

He also impressed upon the minister the importance of ensuring take-up of the vaccine, citing concerns about reports of “lagging take-up” among Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities as well as more deprived communities.

“What we know about the pandemic is it’s these groups that have been worst affected,” he argued. “We need them to take-up the vaccine but I’m conscious that much of what we’ve heard is based on anecdotal stories rather than hard data…

“I wonder whether the minister could say what data he has in this regard and when colleagues can get council ward level data so that we can be part of this effort to drive up take-up?”

The minister told MPs in response that he wanted more data sharing between the central government, local government and clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) and said the NHS will be publishing CCG-level data on ethnicity “very soon”.

The debate this afternoon followed news on Wednesday that the country had surpassed the ten million mark on the number of coronavirus vaccines distributed by the NHS in the effort to immunise the population against the virus.

The government has a target of vaccinating 15 million people – people aged 70 and over, healthcare workers and those required to shield, thought to represent between 90% and 99% of those at risk of dying from Covid – by mid-February.

The number of vaccinations carried out by the NHS is increasing daily, with a current seven-day average of over 400,000. The health service in some areas of the country have begun to offer vaccinations to those over the age of 60.

Ministers have committed £7m to back a year-long a new clinical trial that will give patients a different first and second dose of Covid vaccines, using both the AstraZeneca and Pfizer jab. Zahawi said it will not affect the current roll-out.

“There are no current plans to change our existing vaccine programme,” he explained this afternoon, adding: “But it [the trial] will perform a vital role in helping the world understand whether different vaccines can be safely used.”

The Labour shadow health team spokesperson today welcomed the trial. “It is clear that we will live with Covid-19 for a long time, and indeed its mutations,” Norris told MPs. “So this is the best way to get out in front of it.”

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