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frontline risk Gardai and prison staff should be prioritised in vaccine roll-out, representative groups claim

Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said this week that there were around 1,600 officers absent due to the virus which was putting “significant pressure” on resources.

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Frontline workers such as gardai and prison officers have called for greater clarity on when they will receive Covid vaccinations.

The vaccination roll-out started the elderly and healthcare workers before those between 65 and 69-years-old with underlying health conditions are vaccinated.

After those groups have been vaccinated next on the list is “key workers (to be further refined)” which worker representatives say creates an ambiguity as to who it applies to.

The category which is the sixth out of 15 categories in total is likely to be the most contentious as various worker representatives and industry groups lobby to have their members included.

This group does not currently include teachers, special needs assistants or childcare workers who are in their own category further down the list.

Representatives of shop workers have recently argued they should be in the sixth category but their inclusion seems unlikely and RGDATA who represent grocery shops and convenience stores said it appears their members are in category 13.

Garda representatives have called for their members to be prioritised and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said this week that there were around 1,600 officers absent due to the virus which was putting “significant pressure” on resources.

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Frank Thornton Pic: GRA

Frank Thornton Pic: GRA

Frank Thornton Pic: GRA

Garda Representative Association President Frank Thornton told the Sunday World that gardai are second pillar of the public service response to controlling the virus.

“The Government’s rollout plan is silent on the status of gardaí but our members appear to be classified as key workers essential to societal and economic activity. This means we are not likely to be vaccinated until some time in April.

“We have written to the Minster of Health indicating our dissatisfaction with this.

"The GRA believes gardaí are critical frontline workers who should be treated as a priority group.

"With approximately 18,000 Garda Síochána employees, of which 15,000 are sworn members, it should be possible to administer the first doses of vaccine over two days.”

“Gardaí are regularly exposed to some of the most likely vectors of the disease such as those suffering mental ill-health, severe addiction and destitution; activists opposed to public health policy and members of the public behaving recklessly.

“The hundreds of Fixed Charge Penalty Notices and cautions issued in recent weeks and the many instances over the past 10 months in which our members were required to disperse gatherings that contravene public health guidelines show the high degree of public interaction involved in policing the outbreak.”

He said the high levels of interaction with the public also creates the risk of gardaí being vectors of the disease among the general population which was especially concerning in respect of their work in the community; making personal calls and delivering necessities to vulnerable people around the country.

“This also shows the increased danger of exposure faced by our members and their families and also points to the risk of resources being stretched at a time when the need for gardaí to police the pandemic has increased.

“We are not seeking to skip any queue in respect of medically vulnerable people. Our request is that we are prioritised as critical frontline public servants for vaccination at the earliest opportunity.”

“This will reduce the numbers of gardaí forced to isolate and ensure they remain available to protect communities around the country. It will also fulfil the employer duty of care to our members as working people.”

Prison officers have said once the likes of healthcare workers, the elderly and medically vulnerable are vaccinated they feel their members should be a priority to receive the vaccine.

Gabriel Keaveny, assistant general secretary of the Prison Officer’s Association, told the Sunday World there are outbreaks across the prison system but there is currently no timeline on when officers will be vaccinated.

“At the moment we’re dealing with outbreaks in Cloverhill, Portlaoise, Loughan House and Wheatfield. The reality is every prison has Covid positive prisoners practically

He said there were a number of clear reasons why Prison Officers should be high on the vaccination list.

“We are an institutional setting so if there is an outbreak it is likely to take a large number of people with it.

"The recent outbreak at Wheatfield meant 80 staff were unable to attend because they Covid positive or close contacts.

“The army have told us they cannot help us so we have no access to any additional staffing from anywhere. There are only 3,200 of us over the 14 sites. If there is an outbreak you wouldn’t find it taking too long for that to be depleted.

“There are a finite number of officers. It’s well established a large number of the prison population have healthcare requirements. There is little prospect of us reducing the prison population because they did let people out at the start and then there is the heightened risk associated with institutional settings.

“We feel we’re getting to a critical stage. If the number continued we’d be seriously concerned that we’d reach a situation where we’re unable to staff a prison.”

Mr Keavney said he wrote to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly on January 13 but has yet to hear back.

RGDATA wrote to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly this week to argue the case for shop workers to be higher on the list for vaccinations.

“Under the current plan it seems as if essential retail and food logistics workers will not be considered for a vaccine until Stage 13),” RGDATA director general Tara Buckley said.

“If this remains the position, the levels of absence from shops currently being experienced are likely to be exacerbated with clear and present threats to the maintenance of food supplies nationally.”

Earlier this month the Mandate Trade Union said retail workers were seeking early access to the vaccine.

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