The Guardian • Issue #1969

Teachers demand Federal Government make their vaccinations a “priority”

The Australian Education Union (AEU) wants educators across the country to be considered higher up on the list for those to be inoculated against COVID-19. The union released a statement on their position, calling for a clearer approach to the rollout.

“We have sought a commitment that the education workforce has priority access to the COVID-19 vaccination in recognition of their status as essential workers,” AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe said. “However, at no point has the federal government given education workers the courtesy of making clear when they will receive a vaccine.”

“There are currently thousands of families in lockdown due to COVID-19 transmission in schools, including the families of teachers, principals and education support staff. This highlights the urgency of ensuring that the education workforce is as safe as possible from COVID-19, by prioritising their vaccination.”

The AEU’s statement comes after criticisms of the Morrison government’s handling of the vaccine rollout have caused confusion for many Australians.

“[The] announcement that all Australians under forty can speak to their GP about receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine has caused enormous confusion,” Ms Haythorpe said, “about when, where and how education workers will receive a vaccine.”

The NSW Teachers’ Federation (the NSW branch of the AEU) released their own statement making similar demands. These concerns have been heightened with worry that the Delta variant could see case numbers rise significantly as well as the impacts of the lockdown extension in Sydney and surrounding LGAs.

“It has been reported schools in Greater Sydney will return to ‘online learning’ from Tuesday,” the statement said. “And the Federation understands there is to be no face-to-face [professional learning] on Monday’s School Development Day. Staff may attend their work site if they need or want to.”

In a prior statement, the Teachers’ Federation also called for teachers to be able to access vaccines more readily.

“While Federation understands and supports that the immediate government priority for the COVID-19 vaccinations is for workers in frontline health care, aged care, disability care, and quarantine and border facilities,” the statement said, “the roll-out strategy’s identification of ‘critical and high-risk workers’ must ensure that teachers and principals in schools be placed in the higher priority groups, given their critical role to societal functioning.”

While teachers, other essential workers and vulnerable people across the states and territories wait for their own vaccinations, there has been one example of queue jumping that has had all these groups upset. St Joseph’s College in Sydney, a high-fee private school, managed to secure 163 Pfizer vaccine doses for boarding HSC students.

The private school used the four per cent of indigenous students, in the cohort of 200, as the reason why they approached Sydney Local Health District to administer the doses. NSW Health has described it as “an error”, which has drawn fire for minimising the poor decision.

Greens MP David Shoebridge condemned the school and NSW Health’s actions.

“If the alleged reason St Joseph’s students got access to Pfizer was due to the risk of spreading COVID to Indigenous communities, then a far more effective solution would be to vaccinate those communities instead,” Mr Shoebridge said.

The president of the NSW Teachers’ Federation Angelo Gavrielatos said he was “speechless” at the news. Gavrielatos reaffirmed the Federation’s stance that it is the teachers who must be prioritised.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian didn’t give an indication on whether their request would be addressed and instead dismissed their concerns.

“A number of teachers, I understand, have already been vaccinated,” said Ms Berejiklian. “But all of us, any one of us, in and around the community, have potential to spread the virus.

“As soon as we get those extra doses, of course we’ll continue to make sure that we provide the vaccine. But it is really important to note that there are many people who would like to get the vaccine that currently don’t have access to it. The New South Wales government has expressed its frustration along the process but what we have to do is work with what we have.”

Premier Berejiklian’s stance continues the Morrison government’s inconsistent and heavily criticised rollout: including a lack of effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and communicate a consistent message.

The government’s treatment of all frontline workers shows a lack of organisation and a disregard for them altogether. Tensions have been rising between state and federal governments, aggravated in the wake of the latest case numbers across the country and the extension to the Sydney lockdown.

Instead of the Morrison government rectifying the rollout with a strategic plan forward, independent of the private sector, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has announced that the federal government will be depending on businesses to provide help to further Australia’s rollout.

The talks with business representatives include representatives from corporations such as Coles, the Commonwealth Bank, Telstra, Westfarmers, Virgin and Qantas.

“It was a very important discussion,” said Frydenberg. “And it continues the strong cooperation we have between the federal government and the business community from day one of this pandemic.”

“[The business community] have had experience in delivering the flu vaccine to their workers,” said Mr Frydenberg in an interview with 2GB. “As supply comes along, [business] can play a greater role.”

In conducting discussions with big business, this meeting excluded workers and unions from being engaged in a vaccination rollout course correction that will directly impact their livelihoods. This focus on pandemic profiteers over any substantive intention to work toward the safest and most efficient way to protect frontline and essential workers demonstrates the priorities of the Morrison government. This also excluded the requests by teachers to be prioritised for vaccine protection. It shows that business interests cannot be divorced from state responsibility, even in times as crucial to the welfare of the country like the pandemic recovery.

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