First, let me thank all the key workers in Meon Valley, who have worked tirelessly during the pandemic and continue to do so, especially those now working on the vaccine programme. Progress is really good; one third of my nursing homes should have been vaccinated by the end of the week, and most of the health and social care staff have also had the vaccine. I am confident that everyone over 80 will have been offered a vaccine shortly. The incredible Wickham surgery has done more than 2,600 injections so far, with a third of them for over-80s.
However, one group should be receiving the jab as soon as possible: our teachers. I am incredibly concerned that millions of children are missing out on the education they deserve and need, and I believe it can be delivered properly only in schools, colleges and universities, not online. I know the reason schools are shut: it is not because they are not safe, but because of the transmission of the virus. So it is disappointing to see unions, such as the National Education Union, politicising the pandemic, even though I know that individual headteachers and their staff have often ignored their unions and selflessly thought of their pupils rather than the politics. The situation is not working. Teachers are now in the invidious position of having up to 50% of the children in school because of key worker and vulnerable children rules, while also taking part in remote learning, which is incredibly difficult and time-consuming. There can be few winners from this position.
The mental health and welfare of children is also important. Schools provide an experience not only of education, but of friendship, physical play and lessons for life. The welfare, education and health of children and young people matter above all else, and everything must be done to maintain it. Otherwise, we will be facing an educational disaster long after the pandemic is over. I have talked to brilliant headteachers in Meon Valley throughout the pandemic and they have wanted to keep schools open. Children were catching up fast before Christmas and will again, but that is not the case across the country. In many areas, children are missing from school and missing online lessons too. After the autumn half term, the Department for Education showed that attendance rates in secondary schools were as low as 77% in the midlands, with rates in other areas very similar. Initial research from the Education Policy Institute has found that pupils from disadvantaged areas are losing more days of schooling than those in wealthier areas. Vaccinating teachers now would be a game changer for schools and would allow pupils back full time after the February half term. I urge that teachers be put on the vaccination priority list so that unions have no grounds to prevent schools from opening and teachers feel safe in their classrooms.