Education unions threaten action as schools set to remain open in lockdown

Andrew Kersley

Multiple trade unions representing teachers and support staff in schools have said that they are preparing members to take action if the government does not ensure that schools will be kept safe during the upcoming lockdown.

Unite the Union, the National Education Union (NEU) and NASUWT have today threatened to put forward pathways for possible strike action or tell members to refuse to work if schools do not have adequate safety measures.

The reaction from the unions followed the announcement of a second lockdown for England amid rising Covid cases, which has increased concerns about the ability of the government to keep teachers and other school staff safe from infection.

The measures, set to start on November 5th and end on December 2nd, will see all non-essential shops and hospitality close – but unlike the original lockdown, schools, colleges and universities will stay open, which many unions have opposed.

Unite, which represents school support staff and nurses, has warned today that if safety concerns are identified, it will be telling its members to exercise their legal right to withdraw their work until proper safeguards are implemented.

The union also issued a list of measures that were needed to keep schools safe over lockdown, including funding for personal protective equipment, regular risk assessments, proper access to testing and full pay for self-isolating staff.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “It is vitally important that children are able to access education but if schools are to stay open, then all workers, including support staff and nurses, must be fully protected at all times.

“Unite will not tolerate the health of our members being compromised and if there is an immediate threat to their wellbeing we will instruct them to withdraw from work… The bottom line is that the safety of the whole school community, children, their families and staff must not be compromised.”

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roache warned of the risks to staff after concerns were raised about the enforcement of safety rules and said the union “will not hesitate to take appropriate action” if problems were not resolved.

The general secretary was reacting to a new report from the Resolution Foundation, which found that a third of UK employees were afraid of catching Covid at work and that a stronger enforcement regime was needed to keep workplaces safe.

Commenting on the report, Roache said: “The government’s plans to extend national restrictions to tackle the coronavirus will be seriously undermined if it fails to ensure that schools and other workplaces are Covid-safe…

“It is reckless for the government to assume that the publication of national guidance is sufficient to ensure that schools and colleges remain safe whilst the rates of coronavirus transmission in the wider community continue to escalate.”

He added: “The NASUWT echoes the concerns of the Resolution Foundation that across the board, health and safety inspections have been cut, inspections have been slow, and Covid-related enforcement notices are few and far between.

“Fewer than one in five education settings have been contacted by telephone by the Health and Safety Exectuive and fewer than 300 of 23,000 schools have been visited by the HSE since the start of September. This is simply not good enough…

“The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges.”

The HuffPost reported earlier today that the NEU is launching a new app that aims to allow members to easily raise concerns about safety in schools and even agree to withdraw their labour or request a ballot for strike action for their local branch.

The education union’s new ‘Escalation App’ for its nearly 500,000 members offers a step-by-step guide on getting individual schools to shut their doors over safety fears and offers a guide to escalating action if concerns are not resolved.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has said that Labour MPs will be whipped to support the new lockdown during a Commons vote on Wednesday and defended the decision to keep schools open on Sunday.

He told The Andrew Marr Show that it was “really important” for schools to stay open as the “harm that children are caused by not being in school is huge”. He also called for the government to put in place “effective testing” in schools.

Several Labour backbench MPs and metro mayors, including Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram have backed the education unions’ call for schools to shut over lockdown, putting them at odds with the stance taken by the Labour leader.

The latest coronavirus infection figures from the Office for National Statistics have indicated that secondary school age children are at high risk of getting the virus, with one official warning cases among the age group had been “steeply rising”.

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