Prioritising vaccinations for key workers such as teachers and police over the next few weeks would inevitably lead to more deaths among older people, government vaccination advisers have warned.
There have been various demands for certain groups to be given greater priority in the vaccine programme. Labour has called for key workers such as teachers and police to be vaccinated alongside older groups, while some doctors have called for healthcare workers to be given their second dose sooner than planned.
However, figures from the expert committee warned that lives would be lost unnecessarily if current plans to prioritise people by age and underlying health conditions were altered.
Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics who sits on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), which advises ministers on vaccine distribution, said it would be “politically, socially and ethically unacceptable” to prioritise younger groups over older ones at greater risk.
“We worked out that if you give 20 people in a care home a dose of vaccine, you’ll save a life,” he said. “If you give 160 people in their 80s a dose of vaccine, you’ll save a life. But once you get down to people in their 60s, you’re up to more than 1,000. If you go down to teachers or policemen, you’re approaching one in 50,000. It’s an extraordinarily inefficient way in the crisis to use vaccines – to start going out to these other lobbying groups who are perceiving themselves to be at enhanced risk of exposure, but who are not actually and demonstrably at enhanced risk of getting sick and dying.
“If in the next month you immunised 200,000 teachers, there will be 200,000 people in their 70s who won’t get that vaccine. You’ll save a few teachers’ lives, and you’ll waste the lives of a lot of people in their 70s. It is politically, socially and ethically unacceptable that we turn our back on older people and say, ‘It’s too bad, just stay home and die.’”
He said that there will come a time when ministers may want to switch away from the JCVI’s focus on hospitalisation and deaths, and target certain key workers in the next phase of the vaccine programme.
All those aged 50 and over have been placed in groups 1 to 9 of the first phase of the distribution effort, as well as those most vulnerable to the disease. Maggie Wearmouth, another member of the JCVI, said: “Our duty is to protect the most vulnerable members of society as quickly and efficiently as possible. Every time you vaccinate one person, you are denying that opportunity to someone else. The vaccine rollout for priority groups 1-4 is going really well at the moment. Proceeding swiftly with groups 5-9 is the best way to ensure the protection of most of the groups asking for priority consideration.”
The latest Opinium poll for the Observer found that almost 94% of the public think there must be some workers that qualify for vaccine priority, either alongside or above some older age groups. More than half (54%) backed prioritisation for teachers, and a similar proportion (53%) backed the move for police.