Home » News/Views » Moving forward

Moving forward

15 May 2020

Closed playground, Huntingdon. Photo Jason Chillmaid/shutterstock.com

Opposition politicians have criticised Johnson’s announcement of the easing of lockdown restrictions as “vague”. Having deemed the previous rules authoritarian, these armchair critics now look back on them with nostalgia.

It’s uncomfortable being asked to examine the evidence for what to do and to use your own judgment, isn’t it? It means taking responsibility – much harder to blame the government if things go wrong.

The announcements about gradually returning to work have been greeted with relief by many and, in some quarters, dismay. Government is clearly thinking about attempting to get the economy going, as it must. The NHS is planning long term for a new surge of the virus in October and again in January. So we have to work out how to live with it for at least six months, probably longer.

The teaching union NEU has adopted a general principle of “No going back until it’s safe”. It has asked all members to send a letter to heads refusing to take part in any discussions about how their school might reopen more widely on 1 June, and instead to await advice from the union.


Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, even said that children must be sprayed front and back with disinfectant at the school gates before she would begin to consider a school as safe. As if children are dangerous animals.

They say no going back. But without a positive approach, all it means is no going forward. Nothing is certain in science, but the overwhelming weight of evidence at present – from around the world – is that children are highly unlikely to suffer from the symptoms of Covid-19, and that when they catch it, they do not infect others. How many months, how many years, are the teaching unions prepared to wait for greater reassurance?

In Tower Hamlets, east London, some members and reps have responded quickly to the NEU’s request, pointing out that they have already been working with school managements on how to enable their school to reopen as safely as possible. The local union executive has been forced to give permission for those reps to vary the letter – or not to send it at all.

The impression given by NEU leaders is that they are reluctant for teachers to return to work at all. They risk being seen as obstructive. Of course, the NEU advice could never have applied to NHS staff, bus drivers, supermarket workers and other “essential” workers, who have never stopped working. Are teachers not essential then?

‘Schools are essential, not only to education, but also to the economy.’

Schools are essential, not only to education, but also to the economy. Parents struggling with the impossible task of “working from home” while having to look after their children, families shut up in tower blocks desperate to get back to work to pay the bills, might generally be keen for schools to reopen. They need reassurance that schools will be reasonably safe for their children to attend, and staff will be crucial in this.

It’s much easier for people in reasonable lockdown circumstances to argue against change, especially if they have nice houses with gardens and guaranteed incomes.

We must not be paralysed by fear, but discuss how to move forward. For the foreseeable future – for years – there will be no such thing as 100 per cent safe (actually there never was). Only workers can assess what is reasonably safe in their workplace, and every workplace is different, including every school.

Collective approach

Take the example of the London ambulance workers. Adopt their collective approach, use our experience, our professional expertise, seek advice if needed, assess the evidence, then come to a judgment about what is an adequately safe workplace. If it’s not acceptable, then how can we work together to make it so?

We know we face difficult days ahead, and we will have to face them as best we can. Workers, and only workers, can fight this horrible virus, with a positive and united approach.

Life is risky, only death is not. Let’s choose life.