School workers lead fight to curb new virus variant

Submitted by martin on 20 December, 2020 - 4:18 Author: Martin Thomas
Infection curves

Pushed by school workers in the National Education Union (NEU) refusing to comply with school reopening on 4 January, the government on the evening of 4 January announced a new lockdown.

It is vital now for the labour movement to take the initiative and campaign on our own program, rather than just relying on government measures. We must campaign for full isolation pay and other social measures, and to uphold the right to protest, picket, and strike during lockdown.

Because many school managements had made 4 January, the day the Tories pushed for most primary schools to restart fully, into a staff-only day, sometimes with participate-via-Zoom options, it is hard to know how many schools were stopped that day by school workers asserting their "Section 44" rights to refuse workplaces posing "serious and imminent danger".

Surely hundreds. 400,000 people had joined an NEU Zoom meeting on 3 January. And the school workers were vindicated within hours when Boris Johnson announced the new lockdown, with schools closed.

There was only a modest downturn during the lockdown between 5 November and 2 December, and it soon became clear that cases were rising again. The government stalled, with a messy "tiers" system, some extension of furlough, but no movement on isolation pay and other key social measures.

School unions and councils in many areas called for an early end to the September-December school term (and the Tories started legal action against those councils). The biggest school workers' union, the NEU, called in December for a delay in January school reopening.

On 22 December, the government's official scientific advisory group, SAGE, decided in muted but clear terms for drastic new covid-distancing rules, including school closures.

On 30 December, the "Independent SAGE" group of scientists called for a new lockdown and for schools to close for at least a month. "We are no longer in the same pandemic we were in up to December... "

As for Solidarity, we already said on 2 December that the "tiers" system was "too light" and prospects were "difficult". We didn't yet know about the new virus variant, or the sharp rise in infections which would come from mid-December. We based our opinion on the meagreness of the results of the 5 Nov/ 2 Dec lockdown. But that was evidence enough. On 9 December we sharpened the warning - "it will take months, maybe many months, for vaccinations to slow the death rate decisively" - and continued to sharpen it online over the Christmas and New Year period, especially after the news of the new virus variant.

When asked on 4 January what he had to add to the government's new anti-virus policy, Labour leader Keir Starmer shamefully cited nothing, not even full isolation pay, which Solidarity has campaigned for since March.

Independent SAGE's 30 December declaration, however, did imply support for demands which Solidarity has raised:

  • Full isolation pay for all
  • Publicly-provided quarantine accommodation

Others are needed both to limit both the toll of the pandemic, and the costs of the lockdown:

  • Bring social care into the public sector
  • A public-health test-trace operation, in place of the Serco-Deloitte contracted-out mess
  • Emergency public ownership of private hospitals and of NHS supplies and logistics
  • Workers' control of workplace virus curbs
  • Further extension of furlough payments and the Universal Credit boost

As of now it looks unlikely that the new full-on lockdown can make enough progress to be eased within the month which Independent SAGE suggested. Probably lockdown-level or near-lockdown measures of covid-distancing will be needed for months yet. We made some progress on isolation pay and (often using Section 44) on workplace virus curbs in the spring: we need double that progress now.

Viruses mutate all the time, and no union or government can control that (though of course higher levels of infection and transmission, allowed to prevail by government inaction, will increase the risk of the emergence of more-transmissible mutations, and of them "catching on").

The new variant officially reported on 14 December, and now known to have spread in November and to be spreading in at least 33 other countries, VUI-202012/01 or B1.1.7, transmits a lot faster, as research from Imperial College London published on 31 December documents.

Even the strict lockdowns of March-April brought only a slow decrease (average 22% decrease in reported infections per week in the "best" period, 22 April to 2 July; it was about 10% decrease per week in the November lockdown).

Add faster spread to such slow decrease, and you get a rising rate of infection, if a big majority of the cases are the new variant.

And being more transmissible also makes new variants outpace old variants, and come to be dominant even when they start with only one case. According to the WHO on 31 December, this has already happened once, though less dramatically. "A variant of SARS-Cov-2 with a D614G substitution in the gene encoding the spike protein emerged in late January or early February 2020. Over a period of several months [this] replaced the initial SARS-Cov-2 strain identified in China and... became... dominant... The strain with the D614G substitution has increased infectivity and transmission".

It's certain that infection rates will be high for some weeks yet. It is probable that they will be rising for a good few weeks or even months. It is possible that they will be rising for even longer than that.

Maybe not. Maybe the new variant at the bottom rather than the top end of the researchers' estimates of increased transmissibility. More people will have some immunity now, through having Covid already with or without symptoms, and that will slow transmission. As vaccinations spread, over 2021, and especially as they spread into younger sections of the population, that should slow transmission further. We don't know how much, because we don't know how much the vaccine inhibits transmission as well as inhibiting symptoms, but the vaccinations could slow transmissions too.

Schools are an essential service. School closures (especially of primary and lower secondary schools) are a last resort - because such closures have great social costs; because school-aged children suffer less from Covid than adults and especially older adults; because where schools have been open adult school workers, unlike health workers, care workers, bus workers, etc. have not had above-average Covid rates. On the balance of the evidence since early 2020, school closures usually add relatively little to the transmission-reducing effect of a package of distancing policies.

But now we are in "last resort" territory. We are scrabbling for even marginal additions to transmission-reduction.

We have long called for GCSE and A Level exams scheduled for summer 2021 to be cancelled. Now the government has conceded. GCSEs require no replacement (16 year olds should be allowed to enter whatever apprenticeships or further study they want). A levels do need makeshift replacement pending a (needed) drastic revision of the university system. That makeshift should be worked out now, in consultation with teachers, to get something that minimises the disadvantage for students from worse-off backgrounds who mostly will have lost more school time already and are often short of the technology, resources, quiet space (and confidence) needed to study online from home.

Independent SAGE's stated criteria for ending (or, apparently, even easing) a new lockdown are unworkable; that "all those with the disease and in contact with them are isolated, with support where necessary" and there is "managed isolation" for a quarantine period of all arrivals from abroad. In a foreseeable future of months, the UK's public health system lacks the means even to know how many infected, contacted, and arriving people are self-isolating fully. (As far as we do know, fewer than 20% of those testing positive, let alone contacts and arrivals, are self-isolating properly).

A more workable criterion would be to start easing the lockdown once the infection curve turns down again (and do it step by step, as many European countries did successfully in mid-2020 until the foolish July reopening of bars, cafés, and tourist industries). Schools, especially primary schools, should be priorities for reopening, as they were for example in Denmark back in April.

Frequent and quick-response mass testing, where everyone in a workplace or campus is tested twice a week and has to show a negative test result to enter, does seem to be effective. It has worked relatively well, for example, at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, in the USA, producing much lower rates of infection on its campus than in the surrounding area. It may help schools to reopen earlier than otherwise.

But the NEU - and head teachers' associations too - have been right to say that it needs to be well-organised, with adequate trained staff to administer and process the tests, and the Tory government was nowhere near giving schools the resources to do that by early January.

For the months ahead, when they reopen, schools also need extra funding for the virus-precaution measures which should have been installed already: running rotas and conscripting extra accommodation to reduce class sizes, fixing ventilation, hiring extra regular staff to cover staff absences and avoid bringing new people into the school. They need extra funding now to distribute laptops and hire extra staff for online teaching.

Botched mass testing may even be counterproductive. Many scientists have argued that the government's one-off mass population testing in Liverpool was a useless publicity stunt. There have been claims that the one-off population mass testing in Slovakia in early November was effective, but the statistics since then suggest not.

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