Workers in schools are up to seven times more likely to contract coronavirus than the general population.
The Department for Education (DfE) released its data on the impact of coronavirus in schools on Tuesday. It includes numbers of staff who have had a confirmed case of Covid-19. The government has been collecting this information since October.
Using this data, the NEU union calculated that staff in special schools are nearly seven times as likely to contract Covid-19 as the general population.
Teaching assistants and other staff in schools are three times more likely to become infected. Special school teachers are two times more likely to catch Covid-19. And teachers in primary and secondary schools are 1.9 times more likely to contract it.
NEU joint general secretary Mary Bousted called the figures “shocking”.
She asked, “Why have ministers repeatedly told school staff and the public that there was no reason for concern? Why did ministers deny clinically extremely vulnerable staff the right to work from home?
“Why has it taken ministers so long to release this data? What mitigating measures will ministers now propose?”
The figures put more pressure on a government already in crisis over its back to school strategy. The Tories hoped to drive children and workers back to education with claims that daily coronavirus tests would ensure their safety.
But on Wednesday ministers announced a “pause” to the plan for daily tests in secondary schools after the medicines regulator refused to endorse it. The plan had cost £78 million and education secretary Gavin Williamson had claimed it was a “milestone moment”.
The Tories have knowingly put lives at risk.
On Tuesday the Commons Education Select Committee (ESC) heard evidence about what the government knew about the new variant of Covid-19 and when.
In December, the Tories took legal action against Greenwich council in south London to force schools to stay open. The new variant was already circulating.
Last week Williamson told the ESC that “none of us knew” about the new variant at that time. It isn’t true.
At 3.38pm on Monday 14 December, health secretary Matt Hancock told the House of Commons that a new variant of coronavirus had been identified. He said it might be linked to the faster spread of the virus in the south of England.
At 5pm the DfE issued a legal direction ordering Greenwich council to keep schools open.
DfE scientific adviser Osama Rahman told the ESC the letter had been written before Hancock’s statement. But the government still chose to issue it following the statement.
And the ESC heard that the government was aware of alarming rises in virus cases in some areas on 10 December. That’s when it ordered mass testing in some schools in London, Essex and Kent.
It was confirmed that the new variant was more transmissive on Monday 21 December, the ESC heard. On Monday 4 January the Tories were still trying to force all schools to fully reopen.
There is still a drive to get them fully reopened quickly, despite the knowledge that this will spread the virus.
Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer for England, has said the idea of schools fully reopening after the February half term “seems perfectly reasonable”.
She said on Tuesday that the virus was “hopefully starting to level off”. Britain recorded its highest ever deaths in a 24-hour period from Covid-19, some 1,610, on the same day.
It also recorded 33,355 new cases. This is lower than in previous days. But that doesn’t mean it’s now safe to herd people back to schools and colleges.
Harries herself said that she couldn’t guarantee “that there wouldn’t be another variant or some other epidemiological change” between now and half term.
And she admitted, “School children definitely can transmit infection in schools – they can transmit it in any environment.”
The experience in nurseries and early years settings, currently largely expected to remain open as usual, shows the dangers.
The London Early Years Foundation has been forced to close over a third of its settings since the start of the year due to outbreaks of coronavirus. As of Monday of this week, it had closed 14 out of 39 nurseries and said more would follow.
Some 48 positive cases had been recorded at the foundation in January alone, including 22 in a week at one nursery. Four staff have been hospitalised with the virus.
Boss June O’Sullivan said Covid-19 is “spreading like wildfire” among nursery staff. “What was the DfE saying about nurseries being low risk???” she tweeted.
There are still claims that younger children play a minor role in transmitting coronavirus.
Yet by the end of term in December, primary aged children were the second most infected of all age groups, second only to secondary aged children.
Office for National Statistics figures showed that more than one in 40 secondary pupils and one in 50 primary pupils had tested positive. They showed a sharp rise in cases among children aged between 2 years old and school year six in the first half of December.
The rate of infection per 100,000 had risen 18 times for this group between 1 September and 12 December.
A widespread refusal to return to work by primary school staff helped to force the government to include schools in the latest lockdown. Now the NEU is conducting a survey of early years members asking if they would back an indicative ballot on action over safety.
Union activists must organise to get a big yes vote in the survey. And they should remind workers that they can refuse to work in unsafe environments using Section 44 of the 1996 Employment Rights Act.
The Tories will continue to put working class people at risk if they can get away with it. We urgently need more resistance to save lives.
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