Schools and vaccine liability: Debunking the anti-vaxxers' threats

Written by: Julia Green | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As the vaccination programme rolls out for 12 to 15-year-olds, headteachers continue to receive threatening letters alleging severe legal consequences for them and their schools. We asked legal expert Julia Green to debunk these threats and reassure SecEd readers


The beginning of a new academic year can be challenging for many but 2021 has added an additional burden on to schools in respect of the on-going debate about how best to manage Covid-19.

The government has decided that healthy 12 to 15-year-olds can receive the Covid-19 vaccine and this autumn the first dose is being offered as part of the school-based vaccination programme.

As you will know, this has led to some schools being targeted by anti-vaccination campaigners, with some school leaders being sent letters threatening legal consequences and protests taking place outside some school sites.


The issue of liability

We have seen many letters and representations written to schools, directed at the school as a corporate entity and to individual headteachers and CEOs as personal leaders.

Some of these letters come from individual parents, some come from concerned members of the public, either individually or more usually as a group, and some are part of organised groups. The letters generally take two forms.

  • Letters setting out arguments for why the vaccine should not be used and highlighting the senders’ views concerning the health risks posed to students taking the vaccine. These letters purport to be the voice of those parents otherwise unable to speak for themselves. These letters generally do not require a reply or acknowledgement.
  • Letters entitled “Cease and Desist”, which demand that you stop doing what you are doing to “promote and administer” vaccines. A short acknowledgement is advised for these.

What the two forms of letter have in common is the threat that the school or headteacher will incur personal liability for any adverse reactions to the vaccine among children receiving it on school premises.

These letters have often been threatening and intimidating and it is easy to see how teachers and school leaders could feel nervous about their part in the programme if they receive such letters. The letters often state that the school should not be “administering vaccines”.

But here is the key, which the authors of these letters seem to have missed: schools do not administer vaccines. They are administered by the School Age Immunisation Service (SAIS).

Nor, as some parents and groups seem to think, do schools make assessments of which children should have the vaccine.

Where a child wants to have the vaccine against the wishes of their parents a competency assessment is made – the Gillick competency test (see further information). The child has to be assessed to have an understanding of the decision they are making and also an understanding of the consequences of that decision. This assessment is made by the SAIS, not the school.

So, the school does not give the vaccines nor make any contribution to the assessment of competency where parental consent is not forthcoming.

It is difficult therefore to see how there is any rationale for trying to apply liability to the school. Some parents may argue that the simple fact of opening its doors as a centre is implicitly supporting the programme. However, many schools are used as polling stations, but it is a big leap to hold a school responsible for the MP that is returned there.


A position of neutrality

Where a school needs to be careful is the language it uses to the students about the choices they are being asked to make. It is sensible to make literature available to students and to refer them to organisations that can give them more information, but it is important that the school remains neutral and makes clear that this is a matter for individual choice.

Schools need to be careful that there is no opportunity for peer pressure or bullying between students and to ensure that there is an openness and balance to any comments that are made.


Protests

Where demonstrations or similar take place outside the school, do not try and stop them unless the protestors are intimidating parents or students or you feel things are getting out of hand.

The European Convention of Human Rights protects the right to peaceful protest. However, police can restrict or prohibit protests that threaten to cause disruption. Police will also respond to protests that obstruct highways.

If you fear that a protest risks getting out of hand then call your local police who may send out a PCSO or officer to keep an eye on things and make sure that they do not escalate.

The government guidance for schools (UKHSA, 2021) states: “The SAIS team will have advice from the NHS Covid-19 Vaccine Deployment Programme about running this programme securely. Schools are advised to get in touch with the SAIS team at the first opportunity to understand what security planning they have in place, and what if any actions they recommend you carry out ahead of vaccinations in your school.

“Schools should already have a security policy, based on a security risk assessment. This process is covered in published guidance on school and college security. In the event of a protest or disruptive activity outside a school, or if schools know a protest is planned, they should alert the SAIS provider, local authority and police contacts to discuss the best way to manage the situation.”


The key message

Schools should take comfort that they do not carry any risk of incurring liability as long as they do not interfere with the process of the professionals who are on the front line and who have been tasked with administering vaccines to those that want them.


Further information & resources


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