The government is set to lay out ideas next weekend for an “exit strategy” to the coronavirus lockdown.
Boris Johnson reportedly wants a mass return to work from 26 May—and for schools to start to reopen from 1 June. Many workers rightly fear that they will be pushed back to work in unsafe conditions.
Fran Manning, a primary school teacher and NEU union rep in south London, said most school workers think it’s too soon to reopen schools. “In China they waited until they had zero new cases before lifting the lockdown,” she told Socialist Worker.
“Here, we don’t even know how many new cases we have because we’re not testing people.”
Chris Denson, district secretary of Coventry NEU, agreed. “It’s not the time to think about reopening schools,” he told Socialist Worker. “The NEU has five tests it says should be met before schools reopen. None have been met—there’s no contact tracing for instance.
“Lots of pupils who have the virus aren’t symptomatic. A lot of people are terrified about the idea of schools reopening.”
The NEU’s five tests are not the same as the Tories’. They include much lower numbers of Covid-19 cases and a national plan for social distancing and regular testing.
The union also says the government must outline plans to protect vulnerable staff or those who live with vulnerable people.
Reopening schools doesn’t just put school workers and children at risk. It also affects their families, not to mention all the parents the government will then push to get back to work.
Fran said, “We have children living in multi-generational households and with relatives who have health issues. It’s not going to help working class children to get back to school and be part of spreading infection.”
She pointed out that the size of classrooms would add to problems in maintaining social distancing.
Many ordinary people are suffering under the lockdown (see right ). And being stuck at home hits poorer children harder than those who are better off.
Emma Davis, a primary school teacher and NEU rep in Barking and Dagenham in London, said there is “debate” about schools reopening. “People are deeply concerned about the wellbeing of students,” she told Socialist Worker.
“And some will think that other workers are putting their necks on the line, so what’s so special about us? But the mood as a whole in my union group is that it’s far too soon to talk about ending the lockdown.
“We should have fewer workers putting their lives at risk, not more.”
We shouldn’t fall for the idea that the Tories are motivated by a desire to help ordinary people.
As Fran said, “How dare the Tories say they want to reopen schools because they are concerned about children?
“These are the same people who have inflicted cut after cut on working class parents and children.”
She said the coronavirus crisis has “highlighted problems in the system”.
“Quarantine is fine if you have a big house and a garden,” she said. “If you’re in a one-bedroom flat with no outside space it isn’t.
“The Tories claim to feel sorry for children in overcrowded homes or who don’t have laptops or broadband. But they’re the reason those children are disadvantaged in the first place.
“The fact that they want to reopen primary schools shows this is about the economy.”
School workers are discussing how to respond to Tory attempts to reopen schools. And school unions are growing.
Emma said, “We have been organising online for the first time at my school. There’s been a renewed interest in the union. People want to have these meetings and take part in the discussions.”
And Chris said, “In Coventry we’ve got quite a few new members and loads of new union reps. Lots of people are coming forward wanting to be health and safety reps too.
“We are trying to have Zoom meetings in every school to discuss the issues. All school union groups should be meeting and discussing what schools have to look like before we go back.”
Emma said it’s good to point out that workers can refuse to work under Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act—without a strike ballot.
But she added, “I also think the union should be talking about industrial action.
“If the government says schools reopen on 1 June I don’t think it’s enough just to leave it to school groups to invoke Section 44.”
Fran added that workers may have to take protecting safety into their own hands.
“We’ve got to get organised and be prepared to take action ourselves,” she said. “We might have to refuse to go in if it isn’t safe.”
The key to safeguarding students and staff is organisation at local level.
Temperature checks for commuters could be brought in to get public transport systems fully back up and running.
The plan is just one measure Tories are considering to get people back to work.
Others include new social distancing guidelines and time slots for commuters to book onto trains.
Phil Rowan is an RMT union rep. He told Socialist Worker, “Any plan to have people working as normal will be a disaster.
“It will be impossible for passengers to be safe on packed public transport and impossible for staff to be safe in work.
“At the minute there are that many staff off sick on the Underground that we couldn’t run a full service if we wanted to—which we don’t. Any attempt at making people work in unsafe conditions must of course be fought by the transport unions.
“However as always, if any individual worker has any concerns they are being asked to put themselves in a situation they believe is not safe then they need to know they can refuse to do it.
“Any worker who does refuse to work under this situation will be completely supported.
“There is no way that transport workers should put themselves or their families at risk, so the city and the bosses can start making profits.
“We should resist this. Our health and our lives should always come above profit.”
The Tories want to figure out a way to end the lockdown so that bosses can get back to making money.
But ordinary people understandably fear that being forced back to work could put their lives at risk.
A YouGov poll of 3,152 adults last week showed that 77 percent backed the lockdown continuing. And 46 percent would “strongly support” extending the lockdown.
So now the Tories are trying to find ways to reassure people that it’s safe to go back to work.
Boris Johnson told us that Britain is past the peak of the virus, on the same day that more than 700 more deaths were announced.
The government are considering new measures so they can claim people will be kept safe. Some ministers are for scrapping safety measures, such as the two-metre distancing guideline.
Scrapping the guideline would make it much easier to reopen schools and other workplaces.
The Daily Mail newspaper attacked ordinary people for being scared about returning to work while apparently having fun in parks.
It wants to brand people who don’t want to work as “lazy”. In reality, people are understandably in fear of losing their lives or losing loved ones.
That’s why it isn’t only work that people are avoiding.
An Ipsos Mori poll last week found that 61 percent of people would be nervous about going to bars or restaurants even if restrictions are lifted.
What is Labour’s response to the push to get people back to work?
London mayor Sadiq Khan is drawing up plans to encourage more walking and cycling, to avoid crammed Tube trains.
And Labour leader Keir Starmer has complained that the Tories have been “slow at every turn” in ending the lockdown.
It’s a disgrace that Labour is putting bosses’ profits above the health of the most vulnerable.
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