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Growing pressure on government to delay return of primary schools as union tells teachers it is unsafe to return

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Teaching unions are putting mounting pressure on the government to delay the reopening of all schools in England - and one has advised primary school teachers it is unsafe to return to class on Monday amid the rapid spread of the new Covid-19 variant.

Most primary schools are due to reopen on Monday January 4
Most primary schools are due to reopen on Monday January 4

The National Education Union (NEU) has been calling for all primary and secondary schools to remain closed for two weeks following the Christmas break, as the Cambridge Independent has reported.

It has now urged primary school staff not to go back on Monday January 4.

The union said in a statement: “We are writing to employers, urging them to look at the advice of SAGE, the government’s scientific advisory group, and we are urging our members, on the basis of that science, to use our model letter to inform their headteacher that it is unsafe for them to be in school – in crowded buildings with no social distancing, no PPE and inadequate ventilation

“We are asking members to be available to work from home and to support remote learning.

“This is a step we take with huge reluctance. But this Government is failing to protect children, their families and our communities.

“And it is failing in its duty of care to education staff who have worked tirelessly to look after children during this pandemic.”

In a Cambridge Independent poll, 73 per cent of respondents said all pupils should be taught remotely at the start of term. Only five per cent thought all pupils should return and only six per cent thought primary schools should return, with secondary pupils initially taught remotely.

Meanwhile, NASUWT has written to education secretary Gavin Williamson calling for an “immediate nationwide move to remote education” for all pupils.

He confirmed on Friday that all London primary schools will offer remote learning for two weeks from January 4, rather than those in certain boroughs as suggested earlier in the week. Also staying closed to most pupils are primary schools in areas of Hertfordshire, Essex and Kent, along with those in Milton Keynes.


Unions say extending that to all schools in England is “the only sensible and credible option”.

The new Covid-19 variant is more easily transmissible and is spreading fast,

Cambridgeshire recorded its highest levels of infections yet in the week to December 27, with 1,868, as we have described.

Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the NEU, told BBC Breakfast: “The danger is that by opening schools as levels of infection are rising so high and are already so high amongst pupils, then we’re not going to break that chain and our NHS will become overwhelmed so we said all schools should be closed for the first two weeks.

“We regret to have to say that. We don’t want to have to say the schools will close but our fear is if we don’t do something now, they’re going to have to be closed for a much longer period later on this month.”

Figures showed a record 57,725 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Saturday, with another 445 deaths within 28 days of a positive test.

This was the fifth day in a row daily cases have been above 50,000, with the previous high of 55,892 cases reported on New Year’s Eve – the highest since mass testing began in late May.

NASUWT general secretary Patrick Roach said it was “now abundantly clear” that the pandemic was impacting on the ability of schools to operate normally.

“There is genuine concern that schools and colleges are not able to reopen fully and safely at this time,” he said.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA
Education secretary Gavin Williamson. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called for the government to move all schools to home learning for a “brief and determined period for most children”, adding that the new strain had created “intolerable risk” to schools, while the GMB union, which represents school support workers, said a consistent approach was needed, rather than “a postcode lottery”.

NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman said the union had started preliminary steps in legal proceedings against the Department for Education, asking it to share its scientific data about safety and transmission rates.

Mr Williamson has previously said the decision to close all London primary schools was a “last resort”.

Secondary schools have a staggered return, with only children of key workers and vulnerable children returning on January 4, those in Years 11 and 13 due back on January 11 and all other students set to return on January 11.

Niamh Sweeney, a NEU representative for the Eastern region and teacher at Long Road Sixth Form College in Cambridge, told the Cambridge Independent: “The National Education Union has been calling since October for the government to allow schools and colleges to move to a period of remote learning and then a rota system which will enable them to have fewer students on site at any one time.

“This would encourage social distancing, which isn’t possible when all children are in the classroom at the same time.

“We know that would reduce the amount of the virus in the community, keep it down and give a longer run-in time for a proper test, track, trace and isolate programme to be in place.

“We’ve got an opportunity to do that now but it seems every time the government needs to make a decision, it’s surprised that it has to. We always knew January was going to be a big pinch point.”

Niamh Sweeney, NEU representative and teacher at Long Road Sixth Form in Cambridge
Niamh Sweeney, NEU representative and teacher at Long Road Sixth Form in Cambridge

Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) member Dr Mike Tildesley told the BBC on Saturday that the evidence was “that we are not getting a significant increase in cases in a primary school setting despite this new variant”.

But Professor Andrew Goddard, president of the Royal College of Physicians, said the current case figures are “fairly mild” compared to what is expected in a week’s time and that healthcare workers are “really worried” about the coming months, with infection levels putting hospitals under increasing pressure.

He told the BBC: “All hospitals that haven’t had the big pressures that they’ve had in the South East, and London and South Wales, should expect that it’s going to come their way.

“This new variant is definitely more infectious and is spreading across the whole of the country. It seems very likely that we are going to see more and more cases, wherever people work in the UK, and we need to be prepared for that.”

One nurse described the situation in hospitals as “unbearable”.

The nurse, who works at the Whittington Hospital in north London, described patients being left in corridors, some spending up to three hours in ambulances because of a lack of beds and one being left without oxygen when their cylinder ran out.

Meanwhile, the UK is preparing to send out the new Oxford University and AstraZeneca vaccine, with 530,000 doses available for rollout from Monday.

Two million doses of the vaccine are expected to be supplied each week by the middle of January.

Rollout of the Pfizer/BioNTech jab began almost a month ago but second doses of either vaccine will now take place within 12 weeks rather than 21 days as initially planned.

Professor Anthony Harnden, deputy chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), defended the plans.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday that patients he had dealt with accepted the move, stating: “When it was explained to them that the vaccine offers 90 per cent protection for one dose, and the priority was to get as many people vaccinated in the elderly and vulnerable community as possible, they understood.

“I think the country is all in this together.

“And, I think we really, really want to pull together to try and do the best strategy possible.”

Read more

Government confirms plans for return of primary and secondary schools and universities in January 2021

Covid-19 in Cambridgeshire 2021: Cases, infection rates and deaths for every area as variant leads to record numbers

Lib Dems question city council’s decision to close Cambridge

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