Pupils left ‘upset and intimidated’ by anti-vaccination protests outside school

The Health Secretary has suggested exclusion zones are an option to protect children from targeted campaigns.

Molly Rowe from St John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton receives her vaccines from Dentist Nollaig O Callaghan (Andrew Milligan/PA)
Molly Rowe from St John Ogilvie High School in Hamilton receives her vaccines from Dentist Nollaig O Callaghan (Andrew Milligan/PA)

Pupils have been left feeling “upset” and “intimidated” by anti-vaccination campaigners outside the school gates and the campaign could be making some children hesitant to get the Covid-19 jab.

A secondary school leader in Liverpool, who wishes to remain anonymous, called the police when anti-vaccination protesters blocked the path of pupils who were trying to leave the school this month.

But no reinforcements turned up despite the protest after school getting “quite feisty” and “unpleasant”, he said.

The headteacher told the PA news agency: “We had some youngsters who were really upset about the leaflets that were being given out.

“The leafleteers were blocking students’ way and insisting that they took a leaflet and some of them didn’t want to.”

Only around a quarter of the eligible students came forward to have their Covid-19 vaccine at the school a few days after the anti-vaccination protesters targeted children at the school gates.

He said: “I would have expected a higher proportion.

“I can’t directly attribute that to the leaflets, but the take-up has been slightly less than I would have expected.”

His comments come after the Health Secretary lashed out at “idiots” who mount anti-vaccine protests outside schools as he said exclusion zones are an option to protect children.

Sajid Javid said children have been injured in clashes with protesters, who are spreading “vicious lies”.

Labour has called for councils to be able to use exclusion orders to prevent harassment of staff and pupils by anti-vaxxers outside schools.

But the head of the Liverpool school added: “If we’re going to have exclusion zones, they need to be enforced and sadly my experience has been that we haven’t had the police back-up when we wanted it.”

The school, which is running another vaccination day onsite due to low take-up, is paying extra staff to be on duty “in case anti-vaxxers turn up”, he said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said it is “sickening” that those against vaccinations are demonstrating at school gates.

He said: “Labour believes the law around public spaces protection orders (PSPOs) urgently needs to be updated so that local authorities can rapidly create exclusion zones for anti-vax protests outside of schools.”

PSPOs can be used to disperse people from a public area and have previously been used to move on protesters outside abortion clinics, or to allow police to confiscate alcohol in certain spaces.

Sir Keir Starmer wears a black facemask
Sir Keir Starmer described anti-vax demonstrations outside schools as ‘sickening’ (Peter Byrne/PA)

The mother of a child, whose school was also targeted by anti-vaccine protesters, believes some pupils may now be vaccine-hesitant as a result of the group’s demonstration.

Diane Sweeney said that her 15-year-old son, Euan Sweeney, heard the group of protesters “shouting using megaphones” while “handing out leaflets to students” at the school near Birmingham.

Ms Sweeney, 55, told PA: “The leaflets were, I’m told, biased and guided the reader to websites with inaccurate and disturbing information… I’m guessing there are now worried parents struggling to get their child to agree to be vaccinated because of this misinformation.”

The full-time mum and carer from Sutton Coldfield said that her son thought the protest was “stupid” and “irresponsible”.

When asked whether anti-vaccination protests could be making young people more hesitant to get the Covid-19 jab, the Liverpool headteacher told PA: “I suspect that may be the case unfortunately yes.

“There hasn’t been a big public health campaign that I’ve seen to encourage 12-15-year-olds or their parents to get vaccinated.

“I guess there’ll be quite a few who are uncertain about things and for whom this could be a persuasive factor.”

Downing Street said it was “never acceptable for anyone to pressurise or intimidate pupils, teachers or the wider school community”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Protesters engaging in this type of behaviour should immediately stop.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel has made clear that police will have the “powers and resources they need” to deal with the issue, the spokesman added.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) revealed earlier this month that most of the schools surveyed by the union (79%) have been targeted by anti-vaxxers.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “We would welcome any action which helps to keep anti-vaccination campaigners away from schools and which allows pupils and staff to go about their business without this intrusion.

“Schools are operating under great pressure because of the disruption which continues to be caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“The last thing they need is the additional problem of protesters outside their gates.

“Vaccinations are an important step in helping to reduce educational disruption and in keeping pupils in the classroom after 18 months of turbulence.

“If protesters think otherwise there are plenty of outlets for them to express their views without resorting to targeting schools.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said: “Whatever your views on vaccination, it is never OK to make children feel scared and intimidated as they arrive at school.

“People have the right to express their concerns but this must be done appropriately, schools are not the place for angry protests.

“We would urge anti-vaccination campaigners to behave more responsibly and to carefully consider the impact their actions are having on children.”

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