Coronavirus: Unions says infected staff could sue headteachers

Militant unions warn headteachers they could face legal action if staff catch coronavirus as they launch latest bid to block the reopening of classrooms on June 1

  • A letter has been sent by unions to headteachers, warning them of legal action
  • The missive also said unions will be advising members of their legal rights
  • The Government and unions have been at loggerheads over June 1 opening date
  • Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19

Unions have warned headteachers they could face legal action if staff catch coronavirus as they launch the latest bid to block the reopening of classrooms on June 1.

A letter, seen by Schools Week, has been sent by the National Education Union, Unite, Unison and GMB to headteachers reminding them of their obligations under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. 

It said: ‘We believe it is important you fully understand the potential liability you are exposing yourself to by following the current deeply flawed guidance.’ 

The letter also says that unions will be advising members of their ‘legal rights should any member contract Covid-19 upon returning to school’. 

A review of the scientific evidence into the risks presented by re-opening schools amid the coronavirus crisis has concluded that doing so is unlikely to spread the disease among children or adults. Pictured: Children of essential workers socially distance whilst in lesson at Kempsey Primary School in Worcester

The Government and unions have been at loggerheads since Boris Johnson announced plans to reopen schools on June 1.  

A number of councils have also expressed concerns about the high level of Covid-19 cases in their areas.

Liverpool City Council and Sunderland City Council are just two who do not expect schools to be open at the start of next month.

Sunderland City Council leader, Graeme Millar, told the Guardian: ‘Our stance is clear, we cannot expect teachers – or children – to be in a school environment in Sunderland unless they know that it is safe for them, and there are serious question marks about that presently, based on the localised health picture in the north-east.’ 

It comes just days after video footage showed leaders of the National Education Union discussing how to ‘threaten’ headmasters who tried to get their staff back to work. 

The officials told their members they should refuse to engage if they were asked to return on June 1.

In a further sign of their hardline approach, they described their opposition to the date as a ‘negotiating position’. Mary Bousted, the NEU’s joint general secretary, was even shown accusing children of being ‘mucky’, spreading germs and ‘wiping their snot on your trousers or on your dress’.

Just one in 20 teachers believe it is safe to return to school, claims union 

A poll from teachers’ union NASUWT suggested that only 5% of teachers think it will be safe for more pupils to return to school next month. 

In a letter to the Education Secretary, Patrick Roach, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the union remains ‘unconvinced’ that wider reopening of schools from June 1 is ‘appropriate or practicable’.

The survey, of nearly 29,000 NASUWT members across England, found that around nine in 10 teachers believe that social distancing will be impossible, or will present major issues and a similar proportion are not confident that the proposed measures will protect their health or the health of pupils.

It also found that 87% of teachers believe that PPE is essential to protect staff against the virus. 

The remarks were made in Zoom meetings for thousands of NEU members, recorded on May 14 and posted on the union’s open Youtube account.

Ministers are also facing a nationwide rebellion against reopening from councils.  

Mr Williamson is pushing for the reopening of primary schools for reception classes and Years 1 and 6 on June 1. Officials accept that some local authorities will refuse, but believe that academy schools could reopen and form a ‘bridgehead’ to show parents that classes can operate safely.

But some senior figures in government are reluctant to press ahead if the reopening is likely to be boycotted by a large proportion of schools and parents.

Downing Street indicated that Boris Johnson was not wedded to the June 1 deadline.

Experts have repeatedly warned that the pause in education will affect disadvantaged children the most. And 22 European Union states have partially reopened schools without any evidence of an increase in infections.

The Zoom recordings shine a light on the strength of the NEU’s opposition. In one of the videos, Kevin Courtney, its joint general secretary, was shown briefing teachers on how to pressure schools that tried to reopen.

He said the aim was to ‘back heads away’ from reopening on June 1 by suggesting they could be ‘putting lives at risk’. The tactics could involve multiple complaints by union members with hostile social media campaigns.