School safety zone. Source: Counterfire School safety zone. Source: Counterfire

Many primary schools will re-open for large numbers of children on Monday. This is too soon, argues NEU activist Tony Dowling

We know that Boris Johnson has a cavalier attitude to both the truth and to accepting scientific advice so it is worrying that, on a day when a further 377 Covid-19 deaths were recorded, he should confirm that on Monday he will be “reopening nurseries and other early years settings and reception, year one and year six in primary schools.”

Johnson set himself five tests to be met before adjusting the lockdown. His supposed rationale for reopening schools is that “all five tests are being met.” But there is much room for doubt about that. 

Even the government’s own chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said changes to lockdown restrictions need to be cautious, as the UK’s rate of coronavirus infection is still significant. The Independent SAGE group, chaired by former government chief scientific officer Sir David King, claims the government would be failing to follow its own SAGE committee by opening schools from next week.

Numbers too high 

King’s group has reported 6 key findings on why schools shouldn’t reopen on June 1. The most important of these are the risk of pushing the R-number (rate of transmissions) above 1, and the ability to rapidly respond to new infections with a well-functioning and coordinated local test, track, trace and isolate strategy.

But most recent estimates for the UK are that the R-number is between 0.7 and 1, and reopening schools could push it above 1 – particularly without a localised test and trace model, so going ahead with reopening on June 1 is “risking a new surge in cases” in some communities.

As Gateshead MP Ian Mearns warned this week “we are all being treated the same but with very, very different conditions pertaining around the country”.

There are already reports that the government’s coronavirus ‘test and trace’ system crashed on day one, with the head of the scheme admitting that the full service will not be fully operational until the end of next month. 


Perhaps the people to listen to in these circumstances are those who will be directly affected: the school staff and the children’s parents and carers. The Times Educational Supplement reported findings that 85 percent of teachers do not think it will be safe to return to school on 1 June.

And the National Education Union set out its own “five tests” before schools should reopen. Dr. Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said of the independent SAGE findings:

“The Government’s primary duty should be to protect its people, but in England – unlike the rest of the UK – we are hurtling towards the further opening of schools before the scientific evidence says it is safe to do so. We believe the right thing to do is to wait a couple of weeks for the level of coronavirus to recede further and for the test and track programme to become embedded. We must not take risks with the nation’s children, their parents, or school staff.”

Johnson’s government is being reckless. Monday is too soon for a wider reopening of schools. If you’re a parent, keep your children at home if you can.

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Tony Dowling

Tony Dowling is a teacher, socialist, trade unionist, antifascist, anti-war & anti-cuts activist. He is currently chair of North East People's Assembly and a member of Counterfire.