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UNIONS accused the government of not doing enough to prepare schools for a safe return as Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced England’s “roadmap” out of lockdown today.
Coronavirus restrictions could be fully lifted by June 21 in England as part of a four-stage plan, Mr Johnson told Parliament.
He told MPs the approach was “cautious but also irreversible,” with the vaccination programme replacing the need for lockdown measures.
The PM admitted that scientific modelling suggested that lifting lockdown measures would increase Covid-19 cases — and ultimately deaths — but insisted the restrictions could not continue indefinitely.
In the first phase, all pupils in England’s schools are expected to return to class from March 8, with wider use of face masks and testing in secondaries.
General union GMB, which represents more than 100,000 school workers, has demanded risk assessments, funding and vaccinations to open schools safely and control infection rates.
National secretary Rehana Azam said: “Let’s face it, the government has done precious little to make schools safer between the start of lockdown and now, despite having ample time.
“Once again, the media has been briefed before school workers and their unions.
“School support staff have been in classrooms throughout the pandemic — schools have not been closed. Many school workers are telling us that without additional protective measures, more space and proper support, a full return won’t work.
“This isn’t just about keeping school workers and our children safe. It’s about keeping the R [case reproduction] number down for all of us.”
National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the PM’s announcement “demonstrates again that he has, despite all his words of caution, failed to learn the lessons of his previous mistakes.”
She said: “A ‘big bang’ school reopening brings 10 million people back into crowded buildings with no social distancing and inadequate ventilation.
“The wearing of face masks by pupils and staff in secondary school lessons is a welcome measure but it is not, on its own, enough.
“The government has had two months to put extra mitigations in place to stop the growth in infection in schools that was seen from September to December.
“It is no good political parties talking about these safeguards when they know very well that they have not been put in place and will not be put in place by 8 March. Words are cheap: actions are needed.”
Dr Bousted called for the government to publish the science on its plan and to act to protect vulnerable and older education staff.
Teachers’ union NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach said that it is “hugely regrettable and frustrating” that the government has refused to prioritise education staff in the vaccination programme.
He said: “Vaccinating education staff can be done now if there is the political will to do so. There is simply no excuse and no reason to not do so.”
The University & College Union (UCU) said the plans were irresponsible and called on employers to use common sense and keep teaching online wherever possible to reduce the risk of further Covid-19 outbreaks.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “Pushing students and staff back onsite increases the risk of more Covid outbreaks and threatens to undo the country’s hard work to get infection rates down.”
A further easing of restrictions will take place on March 29, with larger groups of up to six people or two households allowed to gather in parks and gardens.
From April 12, shops, hairdressers, nail salons, libraries, outdoor attractions and outdoor hospitality venues such as beer gardens will reopen.
By May 17, two households or groups of up to six people will be allowed to mix indoors and crowds of up to 10,000 in the largest venues will be allowed at performances and sporting events.
And from June 21, all remaining restrictions on social contact could be lifted, larger events can go ahead and nightclubs could reopen.
Unison general secretary Christina McAnea said that a cautious approach was the right way to balance getting the country moving again and limit virus spread.
She said: “It’s clear restrictions were relaxed too quickly last time and there can be no repeat mistakes.
“By ensuring staff are encouraged to have the vaccine by their employers and paid wages in full if they need to isolate, ministers can drive infection rates down even further.”
Bus drivers’ union RMT raised concerns over their safety with the mass opening of schools.
RMT general secretary Mick Cash said: “High infection rates, new variants of Covid-19, combined with a mass return to school and poor enforcement of face mask-wearing and social distancing, could represent a cocktail of dangers and greater risks for our drivers.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the PM should listen to his scientific advisers and not Tory lockdown sceptics when deciding on the next steps.
“If he does not, we will waste all the sacrifices of the last 12 months,” he warned.
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