Figures from the Labour left – including MPs and trade union general secretaries – are backing fresh calls by the country’s largest education unions to postpone the reopening of schools across England amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The government performed a U-turn on Friday when Gavin Williamson decided to reverse his original decision to fully reopen some primary schools in London next week despite Covid-19 cases reaching record highs in the UK.
The Education Secretary is now coming under pressure to allow all primary schools in England to switch to remote learning for the first two weeks of January, with only vulnerable children and those of key workers returning physically at first.
The National Education Union (NEU) has advised its members in primary schools that it is unsafe to return to work on Monday. The National Association of Headteachers has announced legal action against the Department for Education.
“If you allow the conditions to get so bad in the end you’ll be closing schools for longer,” NEU joint secretary Dr Mary Bousted commented. “You don’t get this chaos in the other countries of the United Kingdom.”
Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 can offer protection to an employee who refuses to work when they have a reasonable belief there is a “serious or imminent danger” to their health and safety or that of others around them.
GMB, which represents school support staff, has called on Williamson to implement the postponement “until appropriate safeguards can be put in place”. The union described current arrangements as a “dangerous recipe for chaos”.
GMB national officer Stuart Fegan said: “As infection rates rise, we need a consistent approach, not a postcode lottery… No-one wants to disrupt any child’s learning but action is needed to protect people and make schools safe.”
Labour national executive committee (NEC) members, heads of Labour-affiliated unions and Labour MPs have written to Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and the education team to express concerns over the party’s current position.
“We support the position of the National Education Union. We want you to do the same,” the letter urges. “Schools should not reopen on the 4th January save for the children of key workers and vulnerable children.”
Labour has criticised Williamson’s “incompetent” handling of the situation and asked for clarity from the government on “the criteria for reopening”. The party last month rejected the NEU plan for secondary schools to reopen only from January 18th.
Shadow cabinet members have repeatedly said “schools should be the last thing to close” in the pandemic. LabourList has requested comment from Labour on the NEU advice today and the letter sent to the leadership this afternoon.
The UK recorded 57,725 cases of Covid-19 and 445 deaths today. The Royal London Hospital revealed in an internal email this week that it is “no longer providing high-standard critical care” due to being in “disaster medicine mode”.
Around 78% of people in England are now living under Tier 4 ‘stay at home’ Covid-19 restrictions, while just under 22% are in the ‘very high’ Tier 3 bracket. Nobody is in Tier 2 and only 0.1% are now in the lowest tier.
Those advocating postponement of full school reopenings have highlighted analysis of international data that suggests closing both schools and universities can reduce the overall coronavirus reinfection ‘R’ rate by 38%.
Below is the full text of the letter sent to the Labour leadership today.
Dear Kate Green, Wes Streeting, Keir Starmer and 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 reopen 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.
Laura Pidcock (Labour NEC)
Nadia Jama (Labour NEC)
Mish Rahman (Labour NEC)
Gemma Bolton (Labour NEC)
Yasmine Dar (Labour NEC)
Ellen Morrison (Labour NEC)
Howard Beckett (Labour NEC)
Ian Murray (Labour NEC)
Andi Fox (Labour NEC)
Len McCluskey (General Secretary, Unite the Union)
Dave Ward (General Secretary, CWU)
Matt Wrack (General Secretary, FBU)
Manuel Cortes (General Secretary, TSSA)
Sarah Woolley (General Secretary, BFAWU)
Andy Kerr (Deputy General Secretary, CWU)
Mick Whelan (General Secretary, ASLEF)
Ronan Burtenshaw (Editor, Tribune)
Jamie Driscoll (Mayor, North of Tyne)
Ian Byrne (MP for West Derby)
Jon Trickett (MP for Hemsworth)
Ian Mearns (MP for Gateshead)
Ian Lavery (MP for Wansbeck)
Richard Burgon (MP for Leeds East)
Kate Osborne (MP for Jarrow)
Claudia Webbe (MP for Leicester East)
Bell Ribeiro Addy (MP for Streatham)
Grahame Morris (MP for Easington)
John McDonnell (MP for Hayes & Harlington)
Dawn Butler (MP for Brent Central)
Zarah Sultana (MP for Coventry South)
Jeremy Corbyn (MP for Islington North)
Rebecca Long Bailey (MP for Salford & Eccles)
Apsana Begum (MP for Poplar and Limehouse)
Nadia Whittome (MP for Nottingham East)
Mary Kelly Foy (MP for City of Durham)
Lloyd Russell Moyle (MP for Brighton Kemptown)
Tahir Ali (MP for Birmingham Hall Green)
Paula Barker (MP for Wavertree)
Rachel Hopkins (MP for Luton South)
Olivia Blake (MP for Sheffield Hallam)
Kim Johnson (MP for Liverpool Riverside)
Nav Mishra (MP for Stockport)
John Hendy (House of Lords)
Christine Blower (House of Lords)
Katy Clark (House of Lords)
Councillor Laura Smith
Councillor Liam Lavery
Don’t Leave, Organise (DLO)
Labour Representation Committee (LRC)
Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL)
Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD)
Socialist Campaign Group of Labour Councillors
Labour Assembly Against Austerity
Parents Against Unsafe Schools