Exclusive: Council accuses school staff of jumping the vaccine queue

An email from Rochdale Council to headteachers says: 'It cannot be right that individuals use unauthorised routes when to do so denies others with entitlement'

By Tom Taylor

School staff have been caught exploiting the vaccination signup process by booking appointments despite not being invited, The Mill has learned.

An email from Rochdale council to all headteachers in the borough accuses some school staff of using an “inappropriately shared” link to get vaccinated, despite not being in the priority groups chosen by the government. The booking link is intended for NHS staff only.

“It cannot be right that individuals use unauthorised routes when to do so denies others with entitlement,” the email from the council’s director of children’s services Gail Hopper says. She says school staff jumping the queue are risking “our most vulnerable residents being delayed in receiving it.”

“The publicity of this happening would be very damaging for the borough,” Hopper writes. She warns the headteachers that the abuse of the system “will increase the risk that NHSE [NHS England] cancels future supplies until it can be assured that the borough follows the required process.” She describes that outcome as “disastrous.”

A spokesman for Rochdale Council confirmed that the email was sent, telling The Mill: “This letter was about a wider concern over the vaccination booking link being shared inappropriately, which has happened in many areas of the country. The letter is not about a problem at a specific school but an attempt to prevent abuse of the system.”

That stance would seem to be contradicted by the email itself, in which the council explicitly accuses school staff and others of not just booking appointments when they weren’t invited, but actually receiving the vaccine. “We know that by it being shared, some school based staff (and others), who are not part of the priority groups identified by government, have booked appointments,” it says. “Indeed some been [sic] vaccinated. Others are now planning to do the same.”

In her email, Hopper references the public debate about whether teachers should be prioritised for the vaccine, as the Labour party has suggested this week. “I recognise that some colleagues feel unhappy that schools based staff have not been prioritised by government in the first two groups,” she writes to headteachers.

She goes on to say: “The question that I would ask is how would any of us feel if, by one of our colleagues accessing a vaccination, our mother or father was denied.”

The email ends by asking all those who have booked appointments through the link to swiftly cancel them. It also says that action has been taken to close the loophole in the booking process by requiring health and social care staff to bring ID and a letter that matches that ID from their employer to their vaccination.

“We have requested that anyone that cannot provide this be refused access,” Hopper writes. “We would rather avoid the embarrassment of them not gaining admission to the vaccination site. Please ask anyone with an appointment booked to cancel it quickly, so it can be offered to those in priority groups.”

This is the email in full:

Dear head teacher,

I am sorry to have to write to you all about this matter and hope that you will understand my purpose for doing so.

It has come to our attention that a booking link sent to NHS employees to book a vaccination slot at one of the identified hospital sites, has been inappropriately shared. This was not the intention when the non-transferable link was provided and should not have happened. Not surprisingly it is now spreading widely.

This testing site in the hospitals listed are for NHS patients, staff and social care staff only. This protects community sites for the older age and high risk groups. We know that by it being shared, some school based staff (and others), who are not part of the priority groups identified by government, have booked appointments. Indeed some been [sic] vaccinated. Others are now planning to do the same.

Our concern is we are fully committed, to ensuring vaccinations are directed to priority groups first. Rochdale has a tight target to vaccinate all care home residents and staff, residents over 75 years and Clinically Extremely Vulnerable residents, along with NHS and social care staff by 15th February – if sufficient vaccine supplies reach us. This is a really challenging target. For every vaccine given to someone outside the priority groups, the risk is increased of our most vulnerable residents being delayed in receiving it.

The publicity of this happening would be very damaging for the borough. It will also increase the risk that NHSE cancels future supplies until it can be assured that the borough follows the required process. This would be disastrous, given the success so far in delivering up to 1200 daily vaccinations.

I recognise that some colleagues feel unhappy that schools based staff have not been prioritised by government in the first two groups. I fully sympathise with that and if the choice was ours, schools staff would have been in the first group. We continue to lobby government about this issue. However, it cannot be right that individuals use unauthorised routes when to do so denies others with entitlement. The question that I would ask is how would any of us feel if, by one of our colleagues accessing a vaccination, our mother or father was denied.

As I’m sure you’ll recognise, we have to take action to prevent this activity. With immediate effect health and social care staff will be required to attend their booked appointment with ID and a letter that matches that ID from their employer / local authority. We have requested that anyone that cannot provide this be refused access.

We ask that you advise any colleagues who have accessed the link and plan to or have already booked an appointment not to do so. We would rather avoid the embarrassment of them not gaining admission to the vaccination site. Please ask anyone with an appointment booked to cancel it quickly, so it can be offered to those in priority groups. Could you also impress on staff the importance of not passing on this link to any others inside or outside the borough. Some may have received it from contacts in other boroughs as this link is shared with Bury, Oldham and Salford. Any such sharing undermines the efforts to ensure vaccinations are directed to priority groups first.

We continue to work locally to identify how we can ensure that all schools colleagues can be invited for vaccination and will try to do this as quickly as possible.

Thank you for your assistance in addressing this difficult issue.

Yours sincerely,

Gail Hopper

Director of Children’s Services

Rochdale Borough Council

A technical loophole

The letter mentions that some staff may have received a link from contacts in other boroughs such as Bury, Oldham and Salford. It is likely, therefore, that the vaccine booking link is that which originated from the Northern Care Alliance NHS Group (NCA).

Last week, The Mill was told that a small number of people, including some in their 20s, were able to use a booking link from the NCA to book and receive the first dose of the vaccine. It was during our reporting of that story that Hopper’s email was shared with us.

NHS Trusts in England use an online booking system, delivered by Swiftqueue Technologies, to organise vaccinations for health and social care workers, as well as hospital patients who are in the groups eligible for vaccination according to the JCVI.

The NCA, in this case, will send an email to those eligible for the vaccine which includes a link to access the Swiftqueue booking system and they can then choose between hospital vaccination centres in Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Salford. They then choose a time slot and enter personal information such as their name, address and date of birth.

This is a separate vaccination booking system to that used by the wider public in Greater Manchester. Last week, Swiftqueue released a statement in which they acknowledged that “a small number of clinics have had the queuing link shared with people that are not the intended recipients.” The company stated that those arriving to be vaccinated must show proof of eligibility and identity and that those who try to jump the queue will be turned away.

Exploiting the system

Two of our reporters were able to use the NCA link to successfully book a vaccination at The Royal Oldham hospital. They were required to submit basic personal information but did not have to prove eligibility for the vaccine. Whilst there was an option to submit their NHS number, it was not a ‘required field’ which means that they could confirm their booking without entering it. Our reporters later cancelled the booking so as not to deprive anyone of a timeslot or vaccine dose.

Each timeslot has a maximum number of five places, as well as a reserve list. Therefore, even if fraudulent patients are turned away at the vaccination centres, they would still be taking a place from those who are actually eligible.

We informed the NCA of this loophole. They say that everyone who attends a vaccination centre must show ID and proof of eligibility at the registration desk and “if they cannot provide evidence that they’re eligible, they will be turned away”.

Yet, we understand that before we raised the issue with the NCA, a small number of people who were not eligible for the vaccine were not asked to prove their eligibility and did receive the vaccine. The NCA is now investigating this.

The letter from Hopper concerning schools in Rochdale further confirms that non-eligible persons were able to book and receive their vaccination using the NCA link.

Volunteers we have spoken to who have worked at various vaccination centres in Manchester have told us that patients are not always asked to prove their eligibility beyond a request for ID.

Last week, an Evening Standard investigation discovered that people who are not health and social care staff, or on the vaccine priority list, had managed to use a Swiftqueue link from the East London NHS Foundation Trust to receive a Covid-19 vaccine. Similarly, The Yorkshire Post reported that Cambridgeshire County Council and Peterborough City Council have had incidents of people fraudulently using Swiftqueue links to book their vaccine.

And earlier today, the Manchester Evening News reported that a public sector worker had used the Northern Care Alliance link to book and receive a vaccine at the Etihad. It is unclear how this could happen, as the link we have seen only offers bookings at hospitals in Bury, Oldham, Rochdale and Salford. The story says council bosses and public health director have raised concerns about the link’s circulation with Greater Manchester’s NHS leadership.

At the time of publishing, we have not received a statement from the Greater Manchester Health and Social Care Partnership about the abuses of the system by school staff in Rochdale and others. We will update this story on our website when we hear back.

Share


To receive our members-only updates on this story in the coming days and support our journalism, join us as a member by clicking the button below.