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  • Writer's pictureDanny Shaw

A wing and a prayer

Lights, camera, action.

It’s time for another photo opportunity with the Home Secretary and frontline police officers.

Last week, Priti Patel turned up at Bishop Stortford, in Hertfordshire.

The week before she was in Liverpool where officers were raiding suspected drug dealers.

And in December, when police bashed in the door of an alleged people smuggler in north-west London, Patel was there too.

Since she was appointed 18 months ago, the Home Secretary has been all over the country meeting police officers - with the media in tow.

Every appearance sends a strong message of her support for the service (though critics might argue that she’d be better off delegating some duties to her able Policing Minister, Kit Malthouse).

Nevertheless, Patel’s backing is genuine and after telling LBC that the Government is “absolutely working” towards getting the police priority access to the coronavirus vaccine I have no doubt she will be robustly pressing the point behind closed doors.

But police officers are not the only emergency workers for whom a cogent case can be made for getting the jab. Indeed, there’s one group who perhaps should be just as high up on the list but seldom get the positive publicity and ministerial visits that police do: prison officers.

Across England and Wales, there are over 27,000 people working in “operational” roles in publicly-run jails, young offender institutions and secure training centres, plus several thousand more in private sector establishments.

They are largely hidden from public view but the work they do is equally as important as that of other emergency workers. They are as much on the frontline as police, paramedics and firefighters - and yet, amid all the discussions about the vaccine, they hardly get a mention.

Covid has not spread through prisons to the extent that was feared at the start of the pandemic but it remains a serious threat to the health of staff and inmates - and it has the potential to jeopardise the safe and effective running of prisons and the criminal justice system.

More than 6,000 prisoners have tested positive for the disease since last March with outbreaks virtually everywhere. At the peak of the first wave, one in five prison officers was off work with Covid symptoms or self-isolating. At least 71 prisoners have died, and, according to press reports, by December there had been 16 deaths among staff. The latest official figures, for the week ending on January 25, show that 82 prison sites had outbreaks, about two-thirds of the total, with 1,235 prisoners having tested positive in the preceding seven days. That week, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Charlie Taylor, told the Justice Committee: “There is a spike at the moment, not surprisingly, usually brought in from the community by officers who go back to their families in the evening.”

This month, a petition was launched to add “first responders” to the vaccine priority list. You’d have thought prison staff - working in confined spaces, sometimes in the faces of prisoners, responsible for the welfare and safety of some of the most vulnerable, disturbed and dangerous people in society - would be included in the petition, but there was no reference to them at all. It has already garnered support from 60,000 people, edging close to the 100,000 needed to be considered for a debate in Parliament. By contrast a separate petition specifically for prison officers to be made a vaccine priority has gathered only 10,000 signatures.

When the Labour Party called last week for “key workers in critical professions” to be prioritised for shots they doubtless meant to include prison officers - but they were left off the press release. I’m sure Labour's Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Rachel Reeves, would like to see prison staff near the front of the inoculation queue - but she also neglected to mention them during her interview today on the Andrew Marr Show on BBC1.

The point is not lost on the Prison Officers’ Association (POA), the main union for prison staff, which has often felt, with some justification, that its members are taken for granted.

On January 28, Steve Gillan, POA General Secretary, wrote to Boris Johnson and the Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, among others, calling for vaccines to be made available to prison staff before jails become “overwhelmed”.

Gillan wrote: “For some reason unknown to the POA we are not mentioned in the same manner as those deemed to be vital key-workers.”

The lack of recognition for prison officers has something to do with the less visible nature of their job, a false perception that they're just 'turn keys' and the absence of a political imperative to sing their praises - there are no votes in prisons, as the saying goes.

It is also, it must be said, partly because the POA has, on occasion, adopted a confrontational stance towards the government of the day - both Labour and Conservative. Mass prison officer walkouts may have captured the headlines but they have left the union without friends in high places.

Over the years, however, during visits to around 20 jails, I have seen first-hand the work prison officers do - the risks they run every time they unlock a cell door; the dedication shown by many towards rehabilitating offenders; and the compassion for those with mental health and drug misuse problems. It is not a job that I could do.

Robert Buckland said last year that he wanted to put on the public record his “deep gratitude to our prison officers and all the support staff in {the Prison and Probation Service} for more than stepping up to the plate, and for excelling and being exemplars of the ethos of public service throughout this crisis”.

The comments were welcome but got little pick up. And although it’s hardly practicable during a pandemic for the Justice Secretary to conduct a round of media interviews in prisons, as Priti Patel is doing on patrol with the police, Buckland could take a leaf from her book - and be more effusive in his public praise for prison staff more often. Perhaps that would encourage others to see prison officers in a different light - and ensure they're vaccinated at the same time as other key workers.

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