MP Calls For "Buffer Zones" Around Schools After Anti-Vaccine Groups Targeted Parents And Children
Labour MP Stella Creasy has urged the government to introduce measures restricting demonstrations in the areas surrounding schools after anti-vaccine protestors have escalated activity targeting children and parents.
In September the government confirmed that 12-15 year olds would be offered the Covid-19 vaccine, with much of the roll-out expected to take place in schools.
A growing number of schools offering Covid-19 vaccinations are now being targeted by anti-vaccine demonstrators, leading to confrontations with teachers and claims children are being "intimidated".
Anti-vaccine groups have used the encrypted messaging app Telegram to coordinate protests around schools where schoolchildren are receiving the jab, including trying to identify places such as nearby bus stops and fast food restaurants, where pupils can be approached without teachers intervening.
Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy is calling on ministers to introduce "buffer zone" measures that would make it easier for local authorities to prevent protesters from gathering and targeting children in the area surrounding schools.
"Children should be able to get to school in peace," Creasy told PolticsHome.
"For me the parallels are very clear with the buffer zone argument we've had about abortion clinics. You don't have an open, uncontested right to foist your views on other people, especially when it's very clear these kids have said no, and these adults are continuing."
In 2018, the Home Office rejected calls to implement buffer zones outside abortion clinics after reports of the ongoing harassment of staff and patients by anti-abortion protesters. Instead, local councils can apply for Public Space Protection Orders on a case-by-case basis, a measure that has been used to curb harrassment at some anti-abortion clinics, but the process is lengthy and subject to regular legal challenges.
While this year's Police and Crime Bill has proposed controversial bans on "noisy" protest, attempts to include exclusion zones to prevent harassment by protest groups were blocked by parliament.
"The Government has repeatedly rejected our calls for legislation to stop those who promote healthcare misinformation and give those affected the confidence that buffer zones to protect vulnerable people can be brought in without the threat of legal challenge," Creasy continued.
"It's no good trying to pass legislation to shut down protests if the Home Secretary finds them annoying, but ignoring those who target school children or vulnerable women – that's not free speech, its harassment and its time the Government put a stop to this before it causes more distress and damage."
Analysis by PoliticsHome found several anti-vaccine groups with hundreds of members seeking volunteers for to attend protests at schools across the country. They urged members to hand leaflets to children warning the jab could "screw up" their bodies, and encourage them to turn down the vaccine because of claims there was no long-term safety information.
England's chief medical officer Chris Whitty has backed the jabs for children, saying there was "substantial transmission" among pupils. Health Secretary Sajid Javid wrote to parents earlier this month encouraging them to support their children to get the vaccine.
Members of one group have targeted dozens of schools across London in recent weeks with an "informed consent" campaign to "encourage resistance".
In the group's online chats, one member said teachers "bully the kids not to listen" as they discussed alternative locations near to schools where children could be targeted.
"That is why we do after school and not by the school gates because the nosey teachers lurk there," a member of the group said.
Another suggested a specific school the group should visit, but said they would not be able to attend themselves because they were "still recovering from shortness of breath after having Covid".
On Tuesday, campaigners targeted Frederick Bremer School in Creasy's constituency of Walthamstow, North East London. Head teacher Jennifer Smith said the group were "pleasant" to the children, but ended up having a "full on argument" with staff after they refused to stop handing out leaflets at the gates.
"I was very disturbed by what they were handing out. It was real propaganda and completely misleading," she told PoliticsHome.
Smith said materials handed out by protesters described receiving the Covid vaccine as "putting poison into your body" and warned children that "everyone is lying to you, the school is lying to you, you don't know the truth behind all these things".
She believed the protesters were trying to "radicalise" and "groom" young people into a distorted view of the safety of vaccines and that some children appeared to find it frightening.
"I think it is completely unacceptable outside of the school building" she added.
"Some of them are autistic, some of them have lost family to Covid or they've got other vulnerabilities, and it was quite intimidating for them."
Smith believed the protest at her school, which has not yet begun vaccinations, had been "counterproductive" for the protestors.
"It raised among the pupils the importance of the jab and got them talking about it again," she said.
"The [pupils] were quite angry about being accosted and about me and the staff being accosted. They thought it was completely unreasonable."
Creasy condemned the visit in her constituency, which she said had led to pictures or videos of children being posted in the online groups.
"I think that any parents, whether they have concerns about the vaccine or not, reading that people were targetting their children and following them from school would be worried," she added.
Dr Patrick Roach, general secretary of teacher's union NASUWT, also condemned the protests.
"Whilst the use of school sites for delivering the vaccination programme to pupils was always likely to cause disruption, these actions are unacceptable," Roach said.
"The government must ensure that appropriate measures are put in place to protect pupils and staff from these continuing threats, harassment and intimidation."
A government spokesperson said: "It is never acceptable for anyone to pressurise or intimidate pupils, teachers or the wider school community, and protestors engaging in this type of behaviour should immeditately bring it to and end.
"We have provided guidance to all schools on how to manage vaccination-related protests in liason with the police, NHS and their local authority, and any school that needs additional support should contact their regional school commissioner team."
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