As TG questions plans to re-open schools, Govt says experts will set the pace
Plans to reopen schools were at the centre of a public row on Tuesday after Together Gibraltar “pleaded” with the Gibraltar Government to delay the return to classrooms by two weeks.
The party accused the government of a “penchant for lax measures and risk taking” and said schools should remain closed until teachers had received their second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
That, the party said, would provide “adequate protection” for teachers and delay community spread and long-term disruption to education.
The government hit back by saying it had always been guided by science in all its decisions throughout the pandemic, rejecting the suggestion that it had taken risks at any stage.
It said it was in discussions with all stakeholders in respect of the re-opening of schools, currently set for February 1, and was considering all aspects and implications.
For its part, the Gibraltar Parents for Education group repeated its position that “schools should be the last to close and the first to open”, adding it was satisfied with the Government’s plan to open schools on February 1 after a three-week closure.
Together Gibraltar centred its concerns on reports that the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine increased significantly following the second dose.
Teacher have already had one jab but will have to wait at least three weeks before they can receive the second.
TG cited studies from the Sheba Medical centre in Tel Aviv which found that a week before receiving the second jab, “only 50% of those examined had levels of antibodies considered sufficient for protection”. A week after the second vaccination, the same studies found “over 98% presented a much higher level of antibodies than required to be considered immune.”
TG said most recent research “points in this same direction”.
“There is no reason why, after having gone through months of difficult restrictions, and on the eve of achieving immunity from vaccines, we should actively endanger a single more life,” TG said in a statement.
“The party is very concerned by the prospect of reopening schools on the 1st of February as announced by Government.”
“This opening would particularly expose teachers, who would still not have received adequate protection from the vaccines administered to them last week.”
TG urged the government to keep schools closed for an extra two weeks and reopen them after midterm, “…a price the party believes is right to pay for the adequate protection of our teachers, and in turn the rate of community spread, to avoid further casualties as well as more disruptions to education in the long run.”
“Together Gibraltar therefore pleads with Government to seriously reconsider their plans and always apply the precautionary principle moving forward.”
In hard-hitting statements, TG reflected on the profound impact of Covid-19 on the community, noting that contagion and fatality rates had “topped world rankings” and the “heroic” GHA continued to be “enormously strained” by hospital admissions.
“When the time comes to analyse how Gibraltar went from miracle to mirage, we will have to evaluate the response from our Government and Public Health authorities in depth,” the party added.
“For Together Gibraltar, the story will be one of unnecessary risks.”
In its reply the Gibraltar Government said TG was “wrong” to suggest the government had taken risks in its response to the pandemic, adding it had consistently acted in keeping with Public Health advice.
“The risk would be to act on the advice of TG which is based on lay persons interpretations of newspaper and social media articles,” No.6 Convent Place said in a statement.
“The Government will not fall into the same traps as Together Gibraltar.”
“For that reason, the Government are talking to teacher's representatives, taking advice from the Department of Education, taking advice from the professionals in Public Health and considering all aspects of the re-opening of schools.”
“The Government will not let party political considerations cloud our making the right judgment on this.”
“We expect to be in a position to say more in this respect in coming days.”
In a statement, Gibraltar Parents for Education (GPFE) said any further delay to reopening, even in the context of the imminent midterm, would be “unnecessarily damaging” for children and their families.
“As we navigate the second lockdown and the second closure of schools in a year, the Association reiterates its view that remote learning must be a measure of absolute last resort,” it said in a statement.
The welcomed news of the fast deployment of the Covid-19 vaccine, which it said gave “cause for cautious celebration.”
“GPFE regrets to note, however, statements made over the weekend on social media, citing studies and data presenting the position that it is not safe for teachers to return to the classroom until sometime after a second dose of vaccine and not a moment earlier,” it added.
“GPFE also regrets to note the publication today by Together Gibraltar of its own statement, seeking to amplify the narrow concerns raised by some at the weekend.”
“GPFE considers that it is not constructive to engage in an unending and entirely fruitless debate about the efficacy of vaccines and the extent to which such vaccines provide protection.”
“To that end, GPFE is not minded to enter that particular debate or make sweeping statements about studies and data that make no reference to the local reality and the massive wider impact of this pandemic on our children and their family units.”
GPFE said it was the “responsibility and exclusive remit” of the Government of Gibraltar, working in consultation with Public Health in Gibraltar, to make decisions that impact on the community in a wide and significant manner.
“GPFE expresses its faith in the Government's approach to education in the context of the pandemic and looks forward to the reopening of schools when it is safe to do so,” the group’s statement added.
“GPFE believes there are bigger issues at stake in this moment in our community and it is incumbent on the Government to make its decisions based on the interests and wellbeing of the wider community.”