Yesterday, it came to light that a Labour peer, Lord Hendy QC, had written a memo to several trade unions, including the NEU, advising them on how to legally refuse to work, should the Government press ahead with plans to reopen schools.
There actually appears to be very little evidence that coronavirus is spread in schools. We have heard time and again, from scientists and Ministers alike, that face-to-face schooling poses very little threat, be it to students, parents or in this case, teachers. The simple fact that children are less likely to get infected generally would suggest that they are inherently less likely to pass it on. This would suggest that teachers are no more at risk of dying than any other profession, possibly even less so.
You would be hard-pressed to find any politician, on either side of the House, who would not at least pay lip service to the idea of reopening schools. It is a necessity.
By and large, most parents cannot provide the same quality of education as a trained professional, and many need their children to return to school so that they can fully return to work. Students are desperate to see their friends, and (for many like me who are part way through studying for qualifications), desperate to get their academic careers back on track. Distance learning disproportionately harms those from lower-income backgrounds, and persisting with this would only continue to do so.
Not to mention the fact that a delayed return to school would almost certainly mean another year of adjusted exam measures, which neither schools, the Government or universities can face. Could anything, besides evidence of a significant threat to public health (which, once again, is absent), justify unions actively undermining the interests of the very students that their members teach?
The memo in question largely relies on the 2002 Control of Substances Hazardous to Health regulations, a piece of legislation that sets out the legal expectations incumbent upon employers where workers may be expected to come into contact with hazardous substances. Whilst I would never dare to question the legal advice and knowledge of Lord Hendy, who (as far as I have read) is one of the foremost lawyers in his field, I must ask how far his interpretation of this legislation can reach. Namely, if coronavirus falls under the legal definition of a substance hazardous to health, then doesn’t the seasonal flu? Didn’t swine flu? Furthermore, if this legislation covers those who work in fields where exposure, or potential exposure, to hazardous substances is an occupational hazard, could it really be extended to COVID-19?
I would argue that a teacher is no more or less likely to be infected with COVID-19 than any other worker. Why, then, is Lord Hendy not coming out in favour of a general strike? Why not take this to its natural conclusion and argue that vital hospital staff go out on strike? How one could argue that exposure to COVID would be classified as an occupational expectation to teachers is beyond me.
This lockdown has taken a mental, physical, social and academic toll on all students up and down the country, and for the teaching unions to stand in the way of a return to school, despite overwhelming evidence suggesting it would be completely safe to do so, would be outrageous. And for a Labour peer to assist them in doing so, based on a highly debatable pretext, would be out of the question.
Labour has promised to back young people for years. If they are to back our health and academic progress, and to back the poorest students, if Mr Starmer is to keep his promise, then Lord Hendy must be reprimanded.