Mother and child in the time of Covid. Photo: Wikimedia Commons  Mother and child in the time of Covid. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Alex Snowdon assesses the first government crisis of 2021

2021 began with something very familiar from 2020: a chaotic U-turn from the government. On the very first day of the year, education secretary Gavin Williamson made a significant climbdown. He announced that all London primary schools would remain closed until at least 18 January, rather than just those in the selective list of boroughs announced merely days earlier. 

This was a partial retreat from an utterly incoherent position. It was conceded under pressure from trade unions (especially the National Education Union) and London’s local authorities. An arbitrary and divisive attempt to separate Tier 4 areas – between those permitted to pause primary school reopening and those prohibited from doing so – backfired. It was yet another self-inflicted humiliation for a senior Tory minister.

Williamson’s late-December Commons speech, insisting that primaries in the vast majority of areas must open fully from 4 January onwards, had been greeted with widespread disbelief and bafflement. It expressed a remarkably stubborn unwillingness to respond to soaring rates of infections, hospital admissions and deaths.

In the days since then, the numbers in hospital with coronavirus have passed the previous peak in April. According to the latest figures, there are now almost 24,000 coronavirus patients in our hospitals. Secondary schools may have had full opening postponed until 18 January, but that is still alarming and contentious considering the awful strain on hospital provision – and the well-documented prevalence of the virus among the secondary school age group. 

This is an emergency. Williamson, like Boris Johnson, seemingly doesn’t grasp that. The government’s own scientific advisers have emphasised that having schools fully open will prevent pulling the R number down to below 1, despite the other restrictions in place. This was made clear to top ministers by the Sage advisory group on 22 December.

The infection rates in recent days indicate that high daily death rates are inevitable for the next few weeks. What happens in the next two weeks, however, is critically important to shaping whether numbers continue to rise or the virus is contained. The new strain of the virus, with higher transmissibility, is spreading nationwide and compounding the existing failure to suppress the virus during the autumn.

We have had a Christmas and New Year fortnight of zigzags, vacillation and extreme incompetence.  It began with people having to cancel Christmas plans when Johnson finally shifted, inevitably, to reducing the scope for Christmas mixing from 5 days to 1 day. This was accompanied by putting a third of England’s population into a new Tier 4. Such measures were left far too late – and would not have been necessary if a proper lockdown had been implemented earlier.

We then had the news that larger areas of the country would, from New Year’s Eve onwards, be covered by Tier 4 restrictions. These restrictions are very close to what we had in the first lockdown of March-May, but with one glaring and massive exception: keeping schools open. This omission undermines everything.

There is a huge contradiction between the strictness of other measures and the insistence that schools must continue business-as-usual. Teachers and support staff are not allowed any household mixing at all, yet are expected to work in a classroom with 30 children at a time. There is an inexcusable gulf between what we know is required and the insistence on immediately pushing millions of children, and hundreds of thousands of school staff, back into busy indoor environments all day, every day.

This is the context in which trade unions are collectively organising to push back against a dangerous and premature resumption of whole-class teaching. My own union, the National Education Union, is leading the way with a decision to advise members to invoke Section 44 – a key part of health and safety legislation, specifically the 1996 Employment Rights Act – to prevent an unsafe full reopening of primary schools. This is a last resort, but has now become necessary.

We should not forget that the NEU called for a circuit-breaker in October to suppress the rapidly rising transmission figures. It later called for schools to be included in the November lockdown. If the government had listened, we wouldn’t be in this mess. Similarly, if the government had responded to the union’s calls – during the summer, then throughout the autumn term – for more funding, more space, mass testing, support for pupils needing technology at home and the flexibility of temporarily using rotas we would be much better-equipped to deal with the pandemic.

As a teacher, I am acutely aware of the benefits for children of being in school – for their wellbeing, personal development and learning – and, like everyone working in schools, I am nervous about the potentially damaging effects of missing normal schooling. We are, however, in exceptional circumstances.

Saving lives must be the top priority. A lockdown cannot be effective when schools remain fully open – and an effective lockdown is exactly what’s needed. Learning needs to be online for now: an imperfect, but necessary, arrangement. School staff are committed to going into school for vulnerable children and the children of key workers, as happened last spring, and providing remote education for everyone else.

The NEU’s stance has rapidly drawn widespread backing. Head teachers’ unions ASCL and NAHT have declared their support for postponing the mass return to classrooms, as has the teaching union NASUWT, while Unison – which has many members among school support staff – is working with the NEU to enable staff to use Section 44.

This is about the safety of teaching assistants, office staff, caretakers, cleaners, lunchtime supervisors and kitchen staff as well as teachers. Above all, it is about protecting the wider community. We know that children transmit the virus and that schools sadly play a major role in sustaining transmission. There is a wealth of data and a constant stream of expert advice from senior scientific and medical figures, yet Johnson and Williamson continue to ignore it.

Where is Keir Starmer?

There is a notable exception to the list of those calling for a delayed return to face-to-face teaching. The official Leader of the Opposition is doing little, if anything, to oppose the government. Keir Starmer remained silent on this major issue until Sunday afternoon, when he made a statement so hopelessly vague that he might as well not have bothered. Even the Lib Dems (remember them?) managed an explicit call for postponing full school opening.

The shadow education secretary, Kate Green, fussed over minor details and failed to land any punches when she responded to Gavin Williamson in the House of Commons last week. Actually, she responded via Zoom rather than in the chamber itself. Strangely, it didn’t seem to occur to her to point out the absurdity of socially distanced MPs demanding that children – and those who work with them – are packed tight into classrooms while they have great spaces between them on the green benches and largely work from home.

This is not a one-off. It is part of a pattern. Starmer has moved Labour firmly to the right since becoming leader last April, while witch-hunting socialists and policing what can and cannot be said about Palestine and Israel. This is not driven by a desire for electoral appeal – for example, polls indicate majority support for postponing a full return to classrooms – but by a wish to make Labour a safe option for the British ruling class.

The consistent failure to support education unions during the pandemic – at least since the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey as shadow education secretary – has been especially shameful. But it is part of a broader failure to articulate an alternative to the Tories on dealing with coronavirus.

We cannot rely on the Leader of the Opposition to lead any opposition to the Tories. We can barely rely on him to meekly follow the lead of others. Trade unions, social movements and the extra-parliamentary left are where we will see real opposition this year. That includes a major role for socialists who remain in the Labour Party, but it won’t be through the structures of the Labour Party.

Most urgently, the entire labour movement must rally to the support of those who are working in schools and their trade unions. This is a critical issue where thousands of lives are at stake. It exposes the fundamental clash between a callous Tory government, unwilling to prioritise the protection of life, and the needs and interests of the vast majority.

We can – and must – prevail.

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Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).