It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.
I very much welcome this debate, and I am grateful to my many constituents for signing the petition—I believe Twickenham was about 13th on the list of signatories. Like many other Members, I have received many emails from school staff and early years staff urging me to participate in this debate and to press for the prioritisation of those staff.
One thing that strikes me is that a number of the staff—I very much agree with them—said that they accept that health and care workers, absolutely, and the most vulnerable, so those who are very old and at highest risk, should be front of the queue. Generally, I do not think that the discussion is around those top four priority groups. There is probably more of a discussion to be had on some of the lower groups. The JCVI has said that, after all its priority groups, it is a matter of policy as to whether other groups, such as teaching staff, are prioritised.
The Liberal Democrats have proposed that teaching staff should perhaps be in group 7, but that is up for discussion. Indeed, if we look at some of the data on the lowest priority group according to the JCVI, the 50 to 55-year-olds, they are at very little higher risk compared with the rest of the general population. I would contend that there is a policy discussion to be had on some of those lower groups that the JCVI put forward, and on whether teaching staff and early years staff should go in there.
I must declare an interest as the mother of a two-year-old and a six-year-old. I am utterly delighted that childcare settings are open: my two-year-old is a handful, and my husband could not home-school our six-year-old daughter if my son was at home, so I am very grateful to the staff in early years settings who put themselves at risk day to day.
I appreciate that vaccinating early years staff and teaching staff will not necessarily prevent the spread of disease, because we do not yet have the data to show that; it will merely give them protection, but that is important. We are all united, across the House, in that we want to see schools return as soon as possible. The most disadvantaged are being hurt, and that is not just the very poorest on free school meals. Over the Christmas holidays, I had a conversation with a mother of three who does not qualify for free school meals, but is just above that line—just about managing. She could not afford devices for her kids in the first lockdown, so she was having to borrow to be able to home-school them—it really is hurting the most vulnerable, because the devices for home schooling are not out there as widely as they should be. It is also having an impact on children’s and young people’s mental health, a subject that I am passionate about and that has already been raised today. Before the pandemic, one young person in 10 had a diagnosable mental health condition; that figure has already risen to one in eight.
I particularly want to shout out for special educational needs and disabilities. By definition, those settings have to remain open, because they have the most vulnerable children. I have had a number of representations from staff and governors in SEND schools in my constituency; one member of staff from Clarendon Primary Centre in Hampton pointed out that, like in early years and some of the younger primary settings, pupils with special educational needs and disabilities struggle to socially distance. The staff provide personal care, including changing, to a wide age range. Some pupils spit and bite; most pupils cannot tolerate the invasive nature of a lateral flow or PCR test. His school has over 60% attendance and his class has 80%—he says, “We are fully open.” More than 50% of pupils in that school are free school meal or pupil premium kids.
It is quite clear that in such settings additional protection for teachers and other school staff is very much warranted, so I urge the Minister to revisit some of the lower-level groups on the JCVI priority list. As I tried to allude to in the main Chamber earlier, there is a desire to have a 24/7 vaccination programme as and when supply allows. The workforce is there to deliver it, so why cannot we include teachers and early years staff?
Our children and young people are really suffering in this pandemic. We owe it to them—and to the people who are taking care of them and helping them to develop into young adults—to protect them as best we can.