When Boris Johnson announced a lockdown in November in the face of rapidly rising COVID infections, there was relief that he had finally taken some action but dismay among many, especially among teaching unions, that he had excluded schools from this lockdown. Not that Johnson came under any pressure at all from his opposite number Keir Starmer to do so. On the contrary, Starmer insisted that any pause in children’s education would be a sign of a government that was failing. Whether lives might be saved by such a pause was, it seemed, outside of Starmer’s frame of reference.
The teaching unions had been sceptical about the full return to classrooms last September. In June they had released a 10-point-plan aimed at making schools safe and challenging the educational inequalities exacerbated by the COVID-crisis. By September, so little of what they had demanded had even been acknowledged by the Government or, indeed, the Opposition leadership, let alone put in place.
Unsurprisingly, within the first two weeks of term there were outbreaks of COVID in hundreds of schools. Children contracting the virus were taking it back with their homework. In poorer inner-city areas this often meant taking it back to overcrowded, multi-generational home settings. PPE for school staff was inadequate and there was poor ventilation in most schools. The government did not care because, for them, children back at school meant parents available for work again, meant the economy would be boosted, and rates of profits revived.
For four and half years from September 2015 Labour was led by politicians with humane and explicitly socialist values, who put people before profit, who made the health and welfare of ordinary people and especially the most impoverished and marginalised, their litmus test of a successful policy. When the establishment succeeded in defeating Corbyn they knew then that Corbynism had not been vanquished. Their favoured candidate for the new Labour leadership, fawned over in the establishment’s media, could only achieve that victory by promising that he would take forward radical policies himself.
It was a cruel deception. There is barely a single one of the 10 pledges that Keir Starmer made, in order to win the popular vote of Labour members, that he has even gone near to fulfilling. The biggest price for that failure has been paid by families and individuals devastated by a COVID crisis which could have been mitigated by a real opposition in parliament that challenged the terrible choices made by the Johnson government, and simultaneously validated and encouraged opposition to government policy within the base of society.
If Johnson was recklessly sending children back to educational settings that were effectively incubators of COVID, he was egged on mercilessly by Starmer who was not merely demanding that children be back in school in September, he was expecting children to return: “No ifs. No buts. No equivocation.” Starmer was thus complicit with Johnson in the infections, illnesses and deaths that had their origin in educational settings from September onwards.
Despite feeling pressure from so many within communities who were experiencing or observing the unfolding tragedy, Starmer still could not bring himself to call for a lockdown, but eventually he asked for a limited “fire-break” . When Johnson did act at the beginning of November, he outflanked Starmer and went for a four-week lockdown. But with Starmer having been so gung-ho about children not missing any education, by physically being in school, (and ignoring union proposals for blended learning and a shift to online teaching), he was in no position to call for schools to be part of the lockdown. The consequences have been so dire and devastating.
Of course Johnson holds an 80-seat majority, so he could have simply dismissed Starmer if he had indicated a change of policy, but Starmer was mainly caught in a trap of his own making. Or was it? Was anyone else implicated? Let’s go back to the early days of the pandemic hitting Britain and the first lockdown in March and April. While communities on the ground were busy setting up Mutual-Aid networks to ensure that the most vulnerable were being supported with practical help in the face of a government influenced by eugenicists obsessed with “herd-immunity”, Starmer spoke up enthusiastically in Parliament in mid-April about the need to get children back into schools with the knock-on effect of boosting the economy. This was just days after Tony Blair’s Global Institute had published a report with the very same prescription in very similar words. To close observers, the new Leader of the Opposition was beginning to sound like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
By early December the unions were publishing compelling updated evidence that, within the wider population, infections had been rising especially rapidly in Primary and Secondary schools. When some local authorities expressed a desire to close schools a week earlier than normal before Christmas they were threatened with legal action by Johnson’s government. And any parents tempted to take matters into their own hands by withdrawing children were threatened with fines.
The teaching unions were fuming, knowing that they and their pupils would be forced to re-enter workplaces at the beginning of January that were completely unsafe. Decades of aggressive anti-union legislation that Thatcher had bequeathed, made industrial action, especially in schools, extremely difficult. Any ballot would require a period of around six weeks to enact. The virus was not about to take a winter break while that process played out. And the teaching unions were given no confidence whatsoever that the Labour opposition had their back. It didn’t. So the unions did it for themselves by holding mass Zoom meetings, and taking every opportunity to put their case on News reports. The result was that 48 hours before the enforced return to schools they had huge numbers of teachers willing to defy the government and assert their rights under Section 44 of the Health and Safety Act to refuse to work in a hazardous environment.
The Government were not going to give any ground to unions. While exempting a number of schools in London and the South East, where it seemed the new variant of the virus had taken hold strongly, and allowing a delayed start of up to two weeks to secondaries, most primary school children were expected to return to their classes, and mix in them, albeit in huge “bubbles”, on 4th January, though many teachers would be absent.
Even after a huge NEU zoom meeting that tens of thousands of teachers participated in, (streamed to more than 100,000 people), where the union set out its defiant position around using Section 44, Labour’s leader, Keir Starmer and Shadow education minister, Kate Green, were stressing the importance of returning to school on Monday. By mid-afternoon there was a leak that Johnson was going to speak to the nation and would most likely announce a new lockdown including schools.
Starmer could see which way the wind was blowing and he began to give interviews in which he said he supported a new lockdown, but he kept hedging and deflecting on schools, merely saying it was “tragic” but “inevitable” that more schools would have to close. Still not a word of support for teachers, support staff, premises managers, administrative staff, cleaners and others, expected to return to unsafe sites. Not a word of acknowledgement or support for the leadership that unions had shown on behalf of their members.
The interviews with a squirming Starmer as the afternoon wore on were painful to watch. A total farce. And so lockdown has come. The vaccinations are beginning to take place. I’m typing this against the constant background noise of ambulance sirens. But schools still have not got any solid government commitments to any of the constructive plans that their unions offered last June, plans that any Labour leadership that had the real human interests of children and parents at heart, let alone workers in schools, should have already embraced. That, unfortunately does not seem to be their priority.