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Editorial Labour is complicit in the Tories’ reckless school-return plans

MILLIONS of people feeling the strain of isolation from friends and family will have been hanging on to the Prime Minister’s words today as he set out the dates on which lockdown restrictions may be eased.

Yet bitter experience has taught us to be wary of government claims to be “following the science” — and despite having botched the lifting of two previous lockdowns, leading to second and third waves of the virus and costing tens of thousands of lives, ministers are still pushing an irresponsible approach.

The plan to open the doors of all English schools to all year groups from March 8, rather than stagger pupils’ return to the classroom, means household mixing will take place on a huge scale.

It goes against advice from trade unions representing school staff, nine of which last week called for a phased return as being undertaken in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to allow time to gauge the impact on infection rates as classes go back.

National Education Union general secretary Kevin Courtney points out that by March 8 the Covid infection rate will be one in 300 on current trends: 4.5 times higher than when they began the autumn term.

That term saw infection levels multiply 75 times for secondary school pupils. By the time it ended, the most infected age group in the country were secondary school pupils. The second most infected were primary school pupils. The third? Adults of parental age.

Boris Johnson cites the vaccination programme as making all the difference, but most people will not have been inoculated by March 8 and very few will have received the second dose recommended by all the vaccine developers.

“Schools are safe,” the PM declared to the Commons, but Courtney is also right to point out that the government has not acted on any of the proposals made by unions for a safe return to the classroom since it admitted schools were “vectors of transmission” on the first day of the current school term.

It has not taken steps to reduce class sizes to allow socially distanced learning, such as by funding extra “Nightingale” classrooms or recruiting extra staff. 

Instead of listening to education workers and working with them to keep them and their communities safe, the Tories and their media cheerleaders have revived a now familiar propaganda war on teachers.

The usual drivel about “union bosses” plotting to keep schools closed has been churned out by Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Lord Rothermere’s Daily Mail, with the latter also taking aim at the trade union activists behind the important Strike Map initiative.

Though his language is more conciliatory, Labour leader Keir Starmer declines to stand up for teachers, backing the government’s bid for full school reopening on March 8.

In Parliament he failed to raise any of the proposals made by education unions for a safe return, allowing Johnson to jibe that he ought to convince his “friends in the unions” to adopt Labour’s pro-government line.

Labour’s failure to push the government on specific measures that would limit infections lets Johnson off the hook.

The PM’s quip today that there was “no credible route to a zero-Covid Britain” would be exposed as the evasive sloganeering that it is if Labour was prepared to campaign for the strategies that have been so successful in suppressing the virus in China, Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia and other countries. 

We know that zero-Covid strategies dramatically reduce deaths and allow quicker resumption of economic and social activity, because they have been tried with that effect in many parts of the world. They are not a fantasy.

Unfortunately, today’s parliamentary exchanges showed that Labour is not prepared to call out the government’s recklessness and unite with unions to fight for a different approach.

The industrial and political pressure for change will need to come directly from working people and their organisations.

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