Britain’s biggest teaching union says that figures showing the Covid infection rates among pupils are proof that schools are not safe.
The National Education Union (NEU) has shared the data from the Coronavirus Infection Survey published by the Office for National Statistics and insists it ends the confusion over school safety.
It shows that infection rates peaked on Christmas Day, with 1 in 49 primary children and 1 in 35 secondary children infected in the north west.
Nationally the figures were 1 in 40 primary pupils and 1 in 27 high school pupils, while in London the figures were even worse, at 1 in 23 and 1 in 18 respectively.
Commenting on the data, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “It is clear from these results that the National Education Union was right to stand up for safety in schools, a massive public health issue on which this government has been consistently behind the curve.
“The government can’t seem to decide whether schools are safe or unsafe. Let this data end their confusion. Schools are clearly driving infection amongst children, and then onto the wider community.
“This peaked on Christmas Day with 1 in every 27 secondary-age children and 1 in 40 primary-age children infected. In London this rises to 1 in 18 secondary pupils and 1 in 23 primary pupils. These figures are truly shocking and entirely the result of government negligence.”
The teachers’ union NASUWT says that the data now coming to light backs up what they’ve believed all along – that those working in the education sector are considerably more at risk – and adds even more weight to their campaign for teachers and education staff to be prioritised for the vaccine.
Jac Casson, of Greater Manchester’s national executive members for the teachers’ union NASUWT, told the Manchester Evening News: “The NASUWT has been trying to ascertain the data of Covid infection rates in schools since September 2020 and for the most part this information appears to be a heavily guarded secret whilst the government continued to use inaccurate data to suggest that teachers and school children were no more likely to be infected by covid than other workforces or members of society.
“According to data, gathered by the NASUWT in Freedom of Information requests, it appears that, as suspected, teachers and those working in the education sector are considerably more at risk. This again would support the Teachers’ Union’s campaign #vaccinate2educate.”
Despite the data, the government insists that schools are safe – with staff at no greater risk than other workers.
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Answering a question about the safety of schools on BBC Radio 5 Live today, England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, said: “Are they safe for children, the answer is absolutely yes – in large part due to the fantastic work teachers have done, but the main reason is because children are at much lower risk of this virus than others.”
He added: “Teachers are at no greater risk than others who go into work. Going into work does obviously carry a risk for many professions, but they’re not a high risk profession like social care workers, or nurses and doctors, but there is a risk to every profession and teachers are included in that, but no more so.”
Prof Whitty, who warned the NHS is facing the worst point of the pandemic, said the reason why schools had been closed in this lockdown was because ‘by mixing together, children bring households together and they can increase the risk of transmission’, but, he stressed, that ‘not having children in school is a very significant disadvantage for those children – and that’s true in health terms, mental health and other areas, as well as in educational terms’.
He said: “The real risk has been that there might be an upward pressure on the R – the transmission rate – and because this new variant is so much more transmissible, we’ve had unfortunately to include education in this in a way that we previously did not have to do so.”
Last week the Department for Education wrote to school leaders saying ‘the decision to limit on-site provision to vulnerable children and the children of critical workers, does not suggest that schools and colleges are no longer safe places’.
It said: “The Office for National Statistics (ONS) data from 2 September to 16 October showed no evidence of difference in the rates of teachers/education workers testing positive for COVID-19 compared to key workers and other professions. Additionally, the Schools Infection Survey (covering 3 to 19 November) found the infection rate among teachers to be similar to that of the wider population.”
However unions say such data is ‘hopelessly out of date and cannot be relied upon’.