Promoted by David Beale, 36 Pleasant View, Withnell, Chorley PR6 8SE on behalf of Martin Powell-Davies of TUSC.

Wednesday 29 April 2020

Why we must have 'find, test, isolate and care' in place to safely end the lockdown

There is a growing scientific consensus that successful management of the Covid-19 crisis requires a comprehensive plan combining mass testing, contact tracing and supported isolation of potentially infected individuals. But a managed plan of action is precisely what chaotic capitalism is struggling to achieve.

Medical science was already well aware that contact tracing has to be a key part of any strategy to tackle a viral epidemic, particularly where no vaccine is yet available. It is a technique already proven to work when tackling Ebola, MERS and SARS for example.

The strategy is simple enough to understand. If you can quickly identify the close contacts of someone who is found to be infected, and then make sure that all these individuals are safely isolated, onward transmission of the virus is hopefully prevented. If this is done consistently, most new cases can be identified, isolated and the outbreak eventually brought under control.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA

Of course, what works medically also has a social and economic cost too. Who pays to look after the income and welfare of the isolated individuals and their dependants for, in the case of Covid-19, what might need to be at least 14 days in isolation? Their jobs and income must be guaranteed, or the strategy will fail to operate successfully. Similarly, resources have to be in place for food deliveries and other practical support to those who need it in order to remain isolated.

How is contact tracing itself going to be carried out? Hopes are being placed in the development of tracing apps that could use smartphones to alert people that they have potentially been infected by someone who has been close to them. But, even if they prove reliable, many, particularly the eldest and worse off, may not own the kind of phones needed. Fears about privacy will also need to be addressed for take-up to be sufficiently high - perhaps requiring 60% of the population - for such a system to work.

So, in addition to tracing apps, mass recruitment of contact tracers is going to be needed. Some of the work can be done remotely though ‘phone interviews, some may require direct visits with adequate PPE. All will need to be properly trained and paid for this important role. Matt Hancock announced the recruitment of 18,000 tracers but, once again, without the necessary urgency and clarity. Once again, the inability of the Tories and capitalism to apply a clear strategy is being exposed.

For an infection like Covid-19, where some proportion of infections, if not yet one reliably known, are passed on from people without obvious symptoms, mass testing is also vital.

It’s not good enough to set up random access to headline-grabbing testing centres that take hours to get to, with the risk that carriers spread the virus as they travel there. We need community testing properly integrated into an overall strategy, firstly to identify individuals who have the virus and then to test their traced close contacts. If this could be done in sufficient numbers, and with sufficiently reliable tests, this could alleviate some of the isolation requirements. Of course, it might also identify individuals who actually needs hospitalisation rather than just isolation.

Given the nature of the virus and uncertainty over immunity, testing will need to be regularly repeated, not just a one-off. That requires an increase in capacity certainly far greater than the UK’s present 25,000 tests a day, but also far more than the 100,000 tests promised by Hancock.

Of course, identifying carriers and contacts quickly is one thing, ensuring they then isolate themselves is another. Contact tracing is not the ‘quick-fix’ that some sections of big business seem to think it is. For it to work, employers need to understand that some of their workforce may well receive a message to say that they need to quickly isolate themselves. They need to be assured they can do so without loss of income.

World Health Organization advice 140420
If, as in the case of schools, health, transport, construction and so many other sectors, work is being carried out without adequate social distancing and PPE, the risk of being a close contact of an infected person increases significantly.

Workplaces may have to close altogether. Bluntly, unless workplace safety is put ahead of short-term profits, the outbreak cannot be properly managed.

Of course, if these necessary measures had been carried out earlier, then it wouldn’t now be so difficult to repair the damage. In mid-March (see video below), the Cheltenham festival went ahead and pubs and schools stayed open, all while Johnson claimed the ‘science’ didn’t prove further steps were needed.

In reality, the evidence from China and other countries that had already been battling the infection, already showed what was needed. There, early application of contact tracing and testing was used to isolate the outbreak to more manageable hotspots. Here, Tory delay means that it will take a lot longer for a similar strategy to work. However, it is the only realistic approach to ending the lockdown safely.

Update 3/5/20:

The Five Tests 'twitterstorm' tonight helped raise the profile of the NEU's demands - but I did get comeback from someone who thought we were trying to just stop schools re-opening altogether. When I explained our demands further, he supported what we were saying - but just thought it was impossible to get the testing done on that scale.

We have to explain that, it IS possible, and it's also necessary - and urgently so.
As this article explains, written by a former GP, "a national plan is needed, drawn up by NHS, university, biotechnology and other workers through their trade unions, to mobilise all the resources needed for a huge increase in testing".

I was also pleased to get a chance on LBC last night to make the case for 'find, test, isolate and care'  - and for the NEU's 'five tests' (which are very much in line with that WHO advice). You can hear what I had to say here:

Friday 17 April 2020

No re-opening schools until outbreak under control, mass testing in place and union agreement reached on safe working practices

A campaign is being waged  by sections of the press and big business to ‘re-open the schools’. We need to resist it.

Yes, there are growing pressures on the incomes and well-being of many in our communities while the lockdown continues. But the pressure to get schools fully open isn’t driven by concerns about welfare or education. They just want childcare in place so they can earn their profits again, never mind the risks to their workforce.

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Re-opening schools now would be a major risk to public health - and to staff and their families too.

World Health Organization advice is clear that an ‘exit’ shouldn’t take place until Covid-19 transmission is under control. The UK isn’t even yet at the ‘peak’ of the outbreak, let alone getting cases and death rates down to a controlled number.

Secure social distancing simply isn’t possible in a school environment. We’ve all seen that many adults can’t manage it consistently in a supermarket, let alone children in a classroom!

Opening schools would inevitably mean the spread of the virus being increased again. Yes, few children would show symptoms, but they would be spreading it on the bus home, back to their parents and grandparents. The poorest families, those with the worst overcrowding   at home, would be most at risk.

Any genuine ‘exit strategy’ depends on government correcting its failure to deliver on mass testing first.

Again, WHO advice makes clear the necessity of first having existing cases under control so that new clusters can then be quickly identified and isolated through immediate testing and tracing of contacts of those carrying Covid-19.

So school staff and unions should bluntly make clear to politicians calling for schools to open: “we’ll happily do so when you’ve done your job first - get mass testing in place!” 

The press and politicians calling for schools to open don’t seem to understand that most schools haven’t closed completely in the first place.

Staff have been supporting vulnerable pupils and children of key workers in schools and hubs, even over the Easter break. They have also been working from home to give online support.

Generally, perhaps an indication that parents understand the health risks more than those rashly calling for rapid re-opening, the numbers in schools have been lower than expected. But, even then, the experience of rota working has confirmed that returning to working again with full classes is not straightforward.

* What situations create risks where PPE is needed - not least in special schools and nurseries?
* Can social distancing measures be put in place to reduce risks?
* Is adequate cleaning provision in place, both regularly during and at the end of the day, but also after confirmed infections?
* How will counselling and other health advice be provided to students and staff who need it?
* Will staff & pupils be fully tested?            

* Will full pay be in place for those living with vulnerable relatives so they can remain safely off site?
No member of staff should be working in a school unless these questions have answers - and ones negotiated and agreed with staff trade unions - both nationally and, in detail, on a local and workplace level too. If staff feel unsafe, unions must back members leaving their workplace if risks aren’t addressed.

Finally, when we do go safely back, let’s also demand that we return to a better education system than before. Scrap Ofsted (and Estyn in Wales), SATs and league tables for good, teach a broader curriculum, end cuts and performance pay, get rid of the privatised agencies that have been ripping off supply staff. Above all, build strong unions to protect staff, school students and education!

This article was written after discussion by members of the Socialist Party working in schools across both the NEU and UNISON. For latest analysis, visit:

Supply educators need back up from all their Union colleagues

Given the health risks facing school staff, and our school communities, it has been absolutely correct to close schools to all but a minority of pupils. However, school closures have left supply educators – teachers and TAs – at serious financial risk. Most have been told that their services will no longer be needed.

The vulnerability of staff who rely on uncertain work and the goodwill – or otherwise – of private agencies and umbrella companies has been sharply exposed. When this crisis is over, then there has to be a concerted drive to organise directly-employed supply pools and put an end to this privatisation of supply cover.

As last term ended, details of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme were just being released. But, as yet, not all agencies have even guaranteed that they will use the scheme to at least provide ‘furlough pay’, based on 80% of previous earnings, to their agency supply staff. Even if they have, it's not yet at all clear how quickly the HMRC will start to process applications once its portal opens on 20 April.

Many supply staff therefore still don’t know whether they will get furlough pay at all and, if they do, how much their weekly income will be. Some have, out of financial necessity, applied for Universal Credit instead.

Even if successful, ‘furloughing’ still means a cut in income. For staff such as agency TAs, even 80% of full earnings is still a worrying cut to an already low income.

So, although ‘furloughing’ can provide an important ‘backstop’ for agency staff, particularly those who had no firm commitments for work next term, that must not be the starting point for union activists to defend their supply colleagues.

Why should supply colleagues be left facing wage cuts when most other school staff have had their salaries protected during school closure? Why are schools, MATs and Local Authorities trying to make savings at the expense of the supply staff that they would have already budgeted for hiring over the term ahead?

Even the Government has said in its advice on the Job Retention Scheme, “where employers receive public funding for staff costs, and that funding is continuing, we expect employers to use that money to continue to pay staff in the usual fashion”.  The Local Government Association has also warned employers that staff covered by the Agency Workers Regulations may legally “be entitled to be paid”.

Supply staff mustn’t be left to battle for their incomes alone. Nor can this just be taken up as ‘casework’. We need a bold campaign at every level of the Union to demand employers and agencies act as they should, acknowledging those who do the right thing, but exposing those who don’t.

Branches and Districts need to immediately get in contact with their supply members, offering support and finding out which local schools and agencies need pressure applied to them.

School reps should urgently contact their Head to insist that they stand by supply staff who have been working at the school. School NEU groups should demand that they are paid fully and included in the rotas and other teaching arrangements that have been set up during school closure.

Thursday 2 April 2020

An appeal from supply educators for urgent support

I am one of many agency staff who have been told that our services are no longer needed because of the closure of school and colleges during the coronavirus lockdown. 

Of course, once laid-off, the chances of any of us finding work as teachers or TAs over the next few months are also slim. If unfairly denied continuing employment alongside the rest of our colleagues in schools, we will be left having to pursue agencies and umbrella companies to win 'furlough pay'. Even if successful, that still means a cut in income for many weeks ahead.

To explain the situation, I am posting the letter below which was drafted following an online meeting of members of the NEU Supply Network yesterday and sent to the NEU General Secretaries:

Update: Also read here:

Dear Kevin and Mary,

Following the Union’s “Town Hall” meeting on Monday, members of the NEU Supply Teachers Network held a further Zoom Conference this afternoon and agreed that we should write to you before your Q&A meetings with the Executive and District Officers this week.

We know that you will recognise that Supply educators, teachers, cover supervisors and TAs, are some of the NEU members that have been placed in the greatest employment difficulty by the closure of schools during the present crisis. The vulnerability of staff who rely on uncertain work and the goodwill – or otherwise – of private agencies and umbrella companies has been sharply exposed.

We are asking that the Union makes the defence of supply educators one of its key priorities over the weeks and months ahead. A bold campaign led by the Union, both nationally and by Districts and Branches, can help make sure that supply staff are not left without continuing employment, nor left facing substantial cuts in their income.

We are grateful for the efforts that have been made to confirm with the Government, that supply agencies are eligible to make claims for ‘furloughing’ through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. This should provide an important ‘backstop’ for agency staff, who are without any firm commitments for employment after Easter and who now face day-to-day hiring drying up completely.

Regrettably, as the Union will be aware through calls to the Advice Line and Local Officers, in the absence of the full legislation, many agencies are still not confirming whether they are prepared to support staff claiming through the scheme. Some have categorically said they will not or, in the case of some umbrella companies, that they will make payments based on the minimum wage. For staff such as agency TAs, even 80% of full earnings is still a worrying cut to an already low income.

The Network is concerned that the present strategy is not working. ‘Furloughing’ should not be our first port of call when, certainly for staff on long-term assignments, schools will already have budgeted for paying the costs of agency staff for next term. Instead of treating supply staff inequitably, the Union should demand schools continue to employ them fully and involve them in rotas, distance learning and other temporary arrangements just as they are asking other members of staff to do.

The Government says in its advice on the Job Retention Scheme, “where employers receive public funding for staff costs, and that funding is continuing, we expect employers to use that money to continue to pay staff in the usual fashion”. The fact that this position should also extend to agency workers, at the very least those covered by the Agency Workers Regulations, is also highlighted in the LGA advice that “in many cases this means that agency workers will be entitled to the same rate of pay as a comparable employee, so if a comparable employee is being paid during the school closure period, then the agency worker may be entitled to be paid”.

We therefore ask that you urge the Secretary of State to make clear that schools should be continuing to pay supply staff in full. He should also make clear that, for those staff where furloughing is the only option, agencies are expected to meet their responsibilities and furlough staff based on the highest possible earnings.

We also ask you to call on the Executive and District and Branch Officers to support a campaign to publicise these demands and to pressurise and expose employers and agencies who fail to stand by supply staff at this time of national crisis. A letter should be sent to every school, and NEU rep, setting out the Union’s expectations and seeking the support of school groups in winning them.

Yours Sincerely,
Niall Bradley
Chair, NEU Supply Teacher Network