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Vaccine queue-jumping at the Beacon and relegation of frontline staff threaten social contract.

Reconsider criteria for what constitute frontline healthcare workers.

By Izzy Fox.

News of “leftover” vaccines from the Beacon Hospital in south Dublin being given to teachers in St Gerard’s in Bray, the private school where the children of the CEO of the Beacon attend, and to the head of the VHI, has understandably provoked public fury. There have also been reports of childcare providers in the hospital receiving vaccines. While teachers and childcare workers are performing essential frontline duties, there are large numbers of the elderly population and those within cohort 4 of the vaccine rollout plan, deemed to be very high-risk, who remain unvaccinated. 

The official government and HSE narrative remains that cohorts 1-4 including frontline healthcare workers, the elderly and vulnerable are currently being prioritised for vaccines. This assertion needs to be challenged for a number of reasons because there is increasing evidence to the contrary, as illustrated by the Beacon story, among other recent examples. At the Coombe hospital in Dublin, vaccines were given to family members of staff and in Offaly, they were administered to workers in the HSE’s finance department. Questions need to be asked as to whether these incidents are reflective of a culture that is endemic. 

On a personal note, the Beacon incident is particularly jarring as I work as a Home School Community Liaison (HSCL) coordinator in the only DEIS secondary school in Bray. This job entails forging a link between the school and the parents/guardians of our students as well as supporting the most disadvantaged families in our school community. Home visits are a central part of this role. As a HSCL, I have continued to visit families at home throughout Lockdown and have been happy to do so. However, even though I take every necessary precaution before and after a home visit, such as mask-wearing, social-distancing and hand-sanitising, I am aware of the risk associated with my role. 

The HSCL position comes under the umbrella of the Tusla Education Support Service (TESS). Unlike HSCLs, people in the other two strands of TESS, namely, the School Completion Programme (SCP) and the Education Welfare Service (EWS) are currently being vaccinated. This is because TUSLA reached an agreement with the HSE to prioritise its staff, whereas HSCLs fall within the Department of Education’s vaccination plan, meaning that despite being in direct contact with parents and children they were initially placed in cohort 11, along with other teachers and Special Needs Assistants (SNAs). However, under the revised rollout plan announced yesterday, cohorts 10 to 15 will now be merged and replaced with an age-based system. This will see those working in education, along with other essential workers, relegated from the priority list. 

There are many TUSLA and HSE staff whose jobs normally involve face-to-face engagement who have been instructed to work from home during Level 5 restrictions. These include vital support roles which are currently being carried out from home, yet they are being vaccinated ahead of not only HSCLs and teachers but also SNAs. SNAs essentially perform the duties of frontline healthcare workers, intimately assisting our most vulnerable children and young people as well as administering first aid. 

The Health Minister, Stephen Donnelly condemned the Beacon Hospital as HSE sequencing guidelines were not followed, reiterating the official government position that “we are prioritising our most vulnerable”, as well as frontline healthcare workers. 

However, the criteria for what constitute frontline healthcare workers need to be reconsidered. For instance, the HSE sequencing guidelines state that prioritisation for vaccines should “be based on the best practical estimate of exposure risk” but counsellors conducting their sessions over Zoom are being vaccinated ahead of vulnerable groups. In addition, there is increasing anecdotal evidence of further inconsistencies in the rollout plan, such as HSE administrators and IT staff, as well as other non-frontline workers and family members receiving the vaccine.  

To preserve our fragile social contract people who were told that “we are all in this together” and have recently been asked to “do more” to battle Covid-19 deserve at least to know that there is not widespread abuse of the system.