England is once again in a national lockdown with Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing on the evening of Monday 4 January that a third lockdown, including the closure of most schools, was necessary to address rising infection rates and the rapid spread of the new variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in England. The lockdown will remain in place for at least seven weeks, with no review until 22 February.
Scotland’s Government has also announced that the country will be in lockdown throughout January; and in Wales all schools will be closed until at least 18 January.
Our National Health Service (NHS) is on its knees – infection rates are at their highest since March, hundreds are dying every day and hospitals are struggling to cope with daily tidal waves of new cases.
The NEU and our sister education unions had argued since before the school Christmas closure that it was unsafe for schools and colleges to reopen in any area of England and that the holiday break should be extended until the virus was under control. The Government’s only concession midway through the festive break was to agree a delayed start for secondary pupils in England to enable pupil testing to be put in place and a similar delay for some primary schools in areas with the highest infection rates (Tier 4 areas).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was continuing to insist on Sunday 3 January in news interviews that schools were “safe” and that most primaries would open the next day. In response, six education unions (NEU, NASUWT, GMB, NAHT, Unison and Unite) signed a joint statement calling for a pause in the reopening of schools for all students except vulnerable children and the children of key workers, and a move to remote learning for all while Covid-secure working arrangements were reviewed.
On the morning of Monday 4 January, primary pupils in England returned to school. Just hours later, at 8pm, Boris Johnson performed a full U-turn, announcing that the whole of England was moving into a full national lockdown (Tier 5). Schools would also close, said the Prime Minister, since they were in fact likely to act “as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households”.
Many commentators have observed that the effect of the Prime Minister’s failure to grasp the nettle sooner and call the lockdown before primary schools reopened meant that thousands of young children mixed together in schools for a full day before going home to spend lockdown among family members to whom they may well have spread the virus in those few fateful hours.
What is the background to this extraordinary set of events?
On Sunday 3 January, the day before primary schools in England were scheduled to reopen, an unprecedented 400,000 members of the National Education Union (NEU) took part in an online union meeting, to discuss the rapidly deteriorating health emergency across the UK.
As joint General Secretaries of the NEU, and with the NEU President Robin Bevan, a serving secondary head teacher, we outlined at that meeting why the Union had taken the difficult decision to advise members in primary, special needs schools, and early years settings, that it was unsafe for them to return to schools and other educational settings for the first two weeks of term. Drawing on protections in health and safety legislation, we advised members to inform Head teachers that they were available to work remotely to support home learning and to attend school to support the children of key workers and vulnerable children. However, we advised them to make clear to Head teachers that returning to school settings with full classes of pupils and staff in crowded buildings with no social distancing, no personal protective equipment (PPE) and inadequate ventilation was unsafe. Thousands of NEU members took the action we recommended, and many primary schools and classes failed to open on the first day of term.
This is a step we have taken with great reluctance. But in our view, the UK Government was failing to protect children, their families and our communities; and failing in its duty of care to education staff who had worked tirelessly to provide quality education and pastoral care to children during this pandemic.
Covid cases were rising rapidly amongst school-age children at the end of the autumn term, amongst whom the highest rates of any demographic were recorded. Children live as part of families and in communities, and can spread the infection to their families and into the wider community.
There is scientific concern that the new variant of the SARS-coV-2 virus might be more prevalent amongst younger people than the previous variants.
Reports from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine from the 23rd of December, papers by the Governments own scientific advisory group SAGE dated 22 December and a report from Imperial College on the 31st of December - all had the same message - that it will not be possible with the new variant of the SARS-coV-2 virus to get the reproduction rate (R) below one without at least a period of school closure.
On 10 June the NEU wrote to Boris Johnson with its education recovery plan containing recommendations on the important steps necessary to promote children and young peoples’ health, wellbeing and education. We received no reply. We commend it to the Prime Minister again. We want to work with the Government to achieve much better outcomes for our nation’s children and young people in this period of lockdown.
Former UK prime minister Tony Blair and three former UK Education Secretaries have written to Prime Minister Boris Johnson backing demands from trade unions and charities for laptops and tablets to be made available to children and young people whose schools are closed. This is the sort of practical step the Government should now be taking.
We are education professionals, and we all want schools to be open for all pupils. We know how important education is to children’s wellbeing and life chances.
But we could not sit by and watch this worsening catastrophe without taking action. Educators will now work flat-out to ensure that online learning is resumed as smoothly and efficiently as possible and that the children of key workers and vulnerable children continue to be taught and supported in school.
We are proud of the stance taken by NEU members and our colleagues in other education unions. It took courage but we have helped to avert a national health disaster. While the Government dithered and delayed, education professionals stepped up to the plate as we always do.