Letter from teaching union heads challenges Tory plan to keep kids in school when large gatherings being abandoned and Parliament cancelling events to protect MPs
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) criticises countries that are not taking all possible steps to limit the spread of the deadly COVID-19 coronavirus, Boris Johnson is considering ’emergency’ laws to force schools to stay open even if heads and teachers believe they should close.
National Education Union heads have written to Johnson asking him to provide the scientific justification he claims to have for his decision – which flies in the face of WHO advice and the actions of neighbouring countries:
Dear Prime Minister,
Every day we are getting increasing numbers of questions from teachers and support staff asking why the Westminster Government isn’t following the pattern of other countries in calling for periods of school closure.
Those questions are increasingly asking why schools aren’t closing if mass gatherings are to be suspended.
We all want to limit and delay the spread of the corona virus and we do think medical advice and expert scientific advice is important in this regard.
But it is clear that such advice can have uncertainties; and that it could be crafted to target a variety of measures.
We now see that you may take legal powers to force schools to remain open even when heads and teachers think there is good reason to close.
In those circumstances we, as the leaders of the largest education union, believe that it is right for us to ask you for fuller disclosure of the models you have looked at, and to understand which measures you are targeting.
We do not have the medical expertise to know what the transmissibility is between children and staff in close quarters in classrooms – but your scientists will have made assumptions about that, together with some view of the certainty of those figures.
It is very important that we understand what the increased rate of infection is for staff and parents if school remain open, including obviously for those with underlying health conditions themselves, or for those they care for.
We know you’ve expressed concerns about children not in school being cared for by vulnerable elderly grandparents, or by NHS staff who would then not be available for work. However we would suggest that parents and schools would be able to work together to find solutions to that – and we would like to know if you have any modelling of such societal responses.
Most of all we think that education staff deserve to have access to modelling of the projected spread of the virus and the projected number of fatalities in a wide variety of scenarios including in scenarios where schools are closed for different periods of time.
Teachers and other staff would work to help a broader societal response to mitigate the effects of the virus. We know this is especially important in a country where public services and the NHS in particular have been run down for so long.
However it is vital that you share all of the potential models you have with us if that societal response is to be as strong as possible.
Mary Bousted, Kevin Courtney
Joint General Secretaries
National Education Union
The Tories have claimed that they are concerned about children out of school being looked after by vulnerable grandparents – but many grandparents share childcare responsibilities anyway while parents are at work. Keeping children in school clearly increases the risk that they will become infected and pass the virus onto elderly relatives.
Boris Johnson continues to recklessly ignore WHO advice – and has admitted his plan is for at least 60% of the UK population to catch COVID-19 in the pursuit of a ‘herd immunity’ that the WHO says is unlikely to work anyway.
Given mortality rates in other countries with high infection numbers, that pursuit would mean the loss of millions of lives – and independent health experts say that even if the idea worked, the number of people suffering infection would need to be 90% or more to be effective.
And one of the world’s leading experts says that closing schools is among the most effective measures for breaking the epidemic or limiting its spread, precisely because it inhibits transmission from children to adults.
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