Covid: So, what do we do now?

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

With its decision to scrap all rules relating to Covid, the government once again has placed headteachers, school staff, and parents in an almost impossible position, says Chris Fabby

In the run-up to the announcement and publication of the government’s so-called “living with Covid” plan (Cabinet Office, 2022; DfE, 2022), we were treated to the usual bluster and rhetoric from the prime minister. Heavy on sound-bites but lacking in evidence and common sense.

The requirement to self-isolate following a positive test is gone. Regular testing in schools is no longer advised. Free Covid tests will be going soon. As Headteacher Update’s report said this week, we are now trusting that people will “do the right thing”.

Scientists, NHS and school leaders, education unions, and even the World Health Organisation have all urged caution and warned against the removal of self-isolation and ending the availability of free testing.

Their message was clear: we all want a return to normal, but we are not out of the woods yet.

Steve Chalke, founder of Oasis Community Learning, a national multi-academy trust, warned on Twitter: “Removing free Covid tests and the requirement to self-isolate is very unwise. It’ll disrupt education, put vulnerable children at greater risk and for parents in insecure jobs, rather than removing the protection to isolate, government should introduce decent levels of statutory sick pay.”

And the government’s own advisors on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE, 2022) could not have been clearer: "The emergence of new variants and a resultant wave of infections can occur very quickly, potentially within just several weeks.

“The ability to rapidly detect and characterise new variants and to scale up necessary responses (such as TTI and vaccinations) quickly will be very important. Considerations for future response preparedness and surveillance infrastructure should take this into account."

The prime minster, however, again refused to learn the lessons of the last two years and ploughed ahead with his decision to remove nearly all remaining safety measures. Placing politics and ideology above public health and at the same time placing headteachers, school staff, and parents in an almost impossible position.

So, what do we do now?

Well one thing has not changed – throughout the last two years it has been left to schools, headteachers, school staff, parents, and unions to step up in the absence of national leadership and we will once again face this task.

We would ask that schools:

  • Continue to do twice-weekly testing for all staff and pupils in secondaries (while tests are still free for all until April 1).
  • Ask all those testing positive or with Covid symptoms to isolate until they test clear in order to prevent the spread of Covid and disruption of face-to-face education (it was reassuring to read in Headteacher Update’s coverage that many headteachers intend to do just this).
  • Reassure staff that when they are isolating, they will continue to receive full pay in compliance with the national agreements for teachers, leaders, and support staff. And ensure any contractors operating in your school do the same. For many in insecure employment the legal requirement to self-isolate is a vital protection.
  • Update risk assessments to consider and mitigate any new risks and in particular the risks to vulnerable pupils and staff.

The prime minister himself has acknowledged that Covid is a severe disease and has warned about the risk to the vulnerable and unvaccinated. And yet removing the legal requirement for positive cases to self-isolate will put them at increased risk and could exclude many who are immunosuppressed from wider society.

While taking the lead locally, we also need to up the pressure on the government to do much more to support schools. We need a higher profile national campaign by government to promote vaccine uptake.

Vaccine rates have been stalling in secondary-age pupils and the roll-out for five to 11-year-olds won’t begin until April. We need clear messaging from government on the benefits vaccination for children.

These are just some of the essential public health measures needed to protect face-to-face education and the health of pupils and staff.

These mitigations won’t be needed forever but abandoning them now risks undermining all the good work we have done to suppress the virus and will result in further disruption to face-to-face education. We cannot let that happen.

  • Chris Fabby is national officer at UNISON.

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