A school has closed early after workers raised serious safety concerns over coronavirus. NEU union members there contacted their employer to say they were using their right under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 not to work in unsafe conditions.
It comes as Tory education secretary Gavin Williamson has bullied schools that wanted to close early for Christmas to stay open. Williamson’s intervention this week followed an admission by health secretary Matt Hancock that cases among school children are soaring.
Children can fall ill themselves and also spread the disease to the rest of their family—just as the Tories have encouraged mixing households at Christmas.
After workers cited Section 44, the school closed early to most children.
An NEU rep at the school, which we have been asked not to name, told Socialist Worker, “There’s a high rate of infection in the local area and we felt it was unsafe. Individuals recognised their right under Section 44 to work from home. As a result the school went to online provision on Wednesday.
“There was a big demand from members to do something. Lots of staff are ill and people are very worried. It didn’t feel like we could provide safe provision for students.”
The Tories are no longer able to get away with their lies that children don’t catch or transmit the virus. Soaring cases in education settings have forced them to say that there will be regular testing in schools from January.
But it won’t be anywhere near enough to contain the virus. The Tories are still driven by a desire to keep schools and colleges open at all costs, not a desire to keep people safe. There needs to be much more resistance to demand measures, such as bigger classrooms and more staff, that can cut transmission.
The rep said, “Our school put every measure we wanted in place. But the virus has still grown out of control. After Christmas, the union is going to have to consider its demands. This is not just about keeping people in school buildings safe. It’s about the communities they live in.”
The GMB union has already spoken out against the Tories’ “dangerous” plans for keeping schools open with more testing after Christmas. It warned that school staff who are not medically trained could be pressured into carrying out Covid-19 tests on other staff and students.
This could end up delivering “incorrect results”.
The union said a testing regime must have “a rigorous programme of support”. Instead the Tories hope to palm workers off with testing on the cheap.
GMB national officer Karen Leonard said, “Testing kits are being rushed to schools without the medical oversight, staff or training to conduct the tests effectively, accurately and safely.
“It’s dangerous. Mass testing cannot be a substitute for other vital control measures like social distance, bubbles, isolation, masks and ventilation.”
The NEU rep said, “As we head towards January, the union has to show a lead and give confidence to groups to do whatever is needed to keep our schools safe.”
In May joint general secretary of the NEU Mary Bousted said the union would “strongly support” members who took action to protect safety. As we head towards a January of soaring infections following the Tories’ break on restrictions over Christmas, union leaders have to be sending this message out again.
But it’s also not enough to leave it to individuals to fight over health and safety at work. We urgently need a national response to stop more needless deaths from coronavirus.
The best action by teachers and other school workers would be to refuse to work in unsafe settings—and that what unions should be encouraging.