Health

Zahawi rejects exclusion zones to keep Covid anti-vaxxers away from schools


Nadhim Zahawi has rejected calls for the introduction of exclusion zones to keep anti-vaccine protesters away from schools, saying he would prefer the police to deal with the problem.

The education secretary told LBC that anti-vaxxers who have been picketing school gates across England should not be going anywhere near schools, teachers or pupils, but indicated exclusion zones were not the best solution.

Zahawi’s cabinet colleague the health secretary, Sajid Javid, and the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, are among those to have called for the use of exclusion zones – known formally as public space protection orders, which are administered by local authorities – to protect schools from protests.

Zahawi said on Monday: “I’d rather have the police deal with it.” Asked if he wanted to see arrests rather than exclusion zones, he said: “Absolutely. Because the moment you start giving them the space to think that they are somehow being prohibited … [the home secretary, Priti Patel] has promised me that the police have got all the resources they need to be able to deal with [them].”

He went on: “The anti-vaxx protesters should not be going anywhere near a school or a pupil or a parent or a teacher. If they do, the police will and can take action against them.”

Zahawi said local government was also working with schools and added: “If anybody feels threatened by these anti-vaxx protesters they should report them and they will be arrested.”

A recent survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) suggested that four out of five schools (79%) have been targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners, mainly in the form of emails threatening legal action. Many school leaders have complained of feeling intimidated and upset by misinformation being spread by protesters.

More than one in 10 (13%) schools said protests had been staged immediately outside their school premises, 20% reported protesters in the local area, 18 schools said protesters had gained access to the school premises, while 20 said they had received communications threatening physical harm to staff.

Geoff Barton, the ASCL general secretary, said he was not surprised to see the education secretary steering away from the idea of exclusion zones. “It’s a good idea in principle but difficult to determine exactly how it would work in practice.

“The trouble is that by the time protesters have turned up and protested it is difficult to do much about it. If protests are ongoing, then exclusions zones might work, but equally it might be possible to defuse the situation simply through appropriate police support under existing powers.

“What we really need is for the protesters to desist from this sort of unhelpful activity. Protests outside schools are completely unacceptable. Students and staff should be able to go to and from school in a calm and orderly environment.”

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added: “Whatever your views on vaccination, it is never OK to make children feel scared and intimidated as they arrive at school.

“People have the right to express their concerns, but this must be done appropriately – schools are not the place for angry protests. We would urge anti-vaccination campaigners to behave more responsibly and to carefully consider the impact their actions are having on children.”

Last month, after a particularly concerning incident involving an anti-vaccination protest, Javid backed the introduction of exclusion zones around schools, saying: “These people are doing so much damage.

“First of all, here you have three children who are injured, actually physically injured, and that’s heartbreaking to see, children going about what they should be doing, going to school every day, and you’ve got frankly these idiots outside their school spreading vicious lies. It is becoming a growing problem as time goes by.”

Starmer described the demonstrations as “sickening”, adding: “Labour believes the law around public spaces protection orders urgently needs to be updated so that local authorities can rapidly create exclusion zones for anti-vaxx protests outside of schools.”



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