Was this the biggest union meeting ever?

Paul Atkin says Labour should follow the science and support the unions

On Sunday morning January 3rd, the NEU held a zoom call with over 100,000 members on it – possibly the biggest union meeting ever. It was held to address the government’s mulish insistence on ignoring advice from SAGE on reopening as many schools as possible to online learning from Monday. This is despite the fact that infection rates with the new viral variant are already running at over 50,000 a day after two weeks of the Xmas holidays and the Health Service is warning that it could be overwhelmed this month.

 It is generally accepted that a projection of death rate is to divide the infection rate by 50 to get the level of deaths in three weeks’ time. So, we are looking at potentially 1,000 a day by the end of January. That is without schools being open at all for the last two weeks. Schools being closed at autumn half term had a real impact in cutting infection rates and the government’s insistence – again ignoring SAGE advice – not to extend the break with online learning, cost lives.

The NEU has issued the following advice to members:

“We understand that SAGE has advised the Government that schools should move to remote learning in order to help reduce the rate of spread of the Covid-19 virus. The NEU supports and endorses this and has called for this advice to be made public.

The advice given by SAGE has only been adopted in relation to secondary schools and to primary schools in some Tier 4 areas.  Given the overall increase in infection rates, however, we believe it is unsafe for schools and colleges to reopen in any area at present.

Infection rates are far higher than at the end of last term.  This increase has been promoted by the new variant of the Covid-19 virus which was not properly understood at that time.  These developments mean, in our view, that the risk assessments in place in schools and colleges at the end of last term cannot now be relied on by employers to demonstrate that workplaces are safe in these changed circumstances. “

Union advice is therefore for members to send in letters to employers citing Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act on the basis that schools are not safe places of work at this point and in current conditions. Advice from the Head teachers’ unions – NAHT and ASCL – to their members is that these letters should be accepted, not contested.

The government has three arguments: 

1. That schools are safe for students – because children usually suffer mild symptoms. This misses the point. Children both contract the virus and infect others. Having millions of them going to and from school every day, working in “bubbles” far larger than anything considered acceptable elsewhere, creates a dramatic increase in potential infectious interactions that will be active in the schools, on the journeys, and back at home. Children living in overcrowded conditions in multi-generational households will be particularly likely to be passing on this viral game of tag.

2. That education is paramount and that other sectors could be closed to keep schools open for face-to-face learning. They never specify which other sectors would shut – largely because there are none which are either still open nor able to have a comparable impact. The importance of education does not extend to making enough laptops available for disadvantaged students to be able to access online learning, Nor does it extend to a constructive engagement with the education unions on measures needed to make schools genuinely safe environments. A concern that exams should take place in the summer is often counterposed to action to save lives now. A sense of priorities on this is urgent. The NEU’s position is that it has continually sought a constructive engagement with the government, but largely been ignored:

“We expect the following to be in place in all education workplaces if and when they admit students:

  • a review of all risk assessments in the light of the much higher transmission of the new variant;
  • social distancing of 1 metre between pupils in all schools and colleges to replace the current practice of cohort distancing which allows whole year groups to mix without any social distancing;
  • masks to be worn by pupils and staff in secondary school classrooms and colleges;
  • school and college staff to be made a top priority for vaccination – along with health care staff and starting with the most vulnerable;
  • and until vaccinated, Clinically Extremely Vulnerable staff and women in the third trimester of pregnancy to work from home, supporting students who are at home.”

3. That mass testing will sort everything out. There are several problems with this. The tests themselves are generally considered 60% accurate when carried out in optimal conditions. In schools, they will be self-administered or administered by volunteers with no medical training. The guidelines for recruiting such volunteers did not get to Heads until the last day of term. Very few will have been able to make adequate arrangements.  An average size secondary school has 1,000 students. Even if all the logistics are in place by January 11th, it is obvious that this is far from a failsafe option.

The Section 44 letter and the full framework for the union’s position can be found here. A petition supporting the union stance is here

Labour’s position on this is critical. The government is charging ahead regardless of consequences – which could be fatal for too many people. Labour should insist – along with the unions – that the science is followed and we put safety first. Members should make this as clear to the front bench as we can.

The following open letter to the Labour leadership and Shadow Education team on schools re-opening is circulating and deserves the widest possible support:

“Dear Kate Green, Wes Streeting, Keir Starmer & Angela Rayner,

The Labour Party was founded and exists to represent working people. Millions of people are now living under Tier 3 or 4 restrictions, in areas where coronavirus cases are either high or very high. We understand that the new strain which has been discovered may be more easily transmissible, but we still do not understand enough about the health impact on different age groups.

From the start of this crisis, the Government have failed to provide schools with the adequate resources to enable proper physical distancing, so to say they are safe environments is simply not true. It is now widely accepted that the virus is readily transmitted from children to adults. In the absence of mass testing it is impossible to know those children who are healthy from those who are asymptomatic carriers. Parents, children, teaching assistants, teachers, caretakers, lunchtime assistants, and office staff are looking to us, the Labour Party, to speak up for them, and to hold this Government to account and to press them to do the right thing. We support the position of the National Education Union. We want you to do the same.

Schools should not re-open on the 4th January save for the children of key workers and vulnerable children. This is about the lives and safety of working people, children and the safety of our communities. Nothing should ever come before that. Do the right thing.”

The letter is signed by several NEC members, a number of union leaders, including Unite’s Len McCluskey and over two dozen MPs and parliamentarians, including Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell. The full list is here.

I would also propose the following model motion for Labour Party branches and CLPs:

“This CLP recognises that

  • The evolution of a more infectious variant of the COVID19 virus is leading to a rapid increase in infections, hospitalisations and deaths.
  • The government’s approach has led to one of the highest per capita death toll among the larger countries.  The objective of prioritising the economy has also been completely counter-productive, as 900,000 people have already lost their jobs and international bodies such as the IMF and OECD forecast Britain will have one of the deepest recessions of any major economy.
  • The governments approach is exactly the opposite of the approach needed; which is to drive down infections to the point that they can be controlled and managed until the virus is eliminated, which has been achieved in a number of other countries.

We welcome the deployment of vaccines as a way to speed up this elimination,  but it is clear that the government has already mishandled the roll-out and its vaccination programme is not going to prevent new cases and deaths for weeks or months.

We believe that the Party nationally – and the front bench in Parliament – should be calling for a zero COVID strategy – designed to eliminate the virus.

​That requires

  • A serious lockdown to squash transmission to a point that the virus can be eliminated, the closure of all non-essential workplaces, schools, colleges and universities.
  • Full economic support for everyone affected.
  • Overhauling test and trace through the Health Service and Local Authorities so that it actually works, and full financial support for those in isolation.
  • An economic recovery plan to regenerate the economy that also transforms it by investing in green transition on the scale proposed by the TUC – which could create 1.2 million jobs, stave off a recession and avert poverty.

We resolve

  • to send this resolution to our NEC representatives and appropriate Shadow Minsters and circulate members.
  • to investigate Zero Covid initiatives and discuss them at future meetings.”

Paul Atkin blogs at Urban Ramblings https://urbanramblings19687496.city/ 

Image: Classroom. Author: Slp1, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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