Teaching union backs calls for two week 'circuit breaker'

Teaching union backs Keir Starmer in calling for an urgent two week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown piling pressure on Boris Johnson to take action over half term

  • National Education Union has backed calls for a circuit breaker in the UK
  • Says move will allow Government control the test, track and trace system  
  • Comes as Keir Starmer demanded Britain be plunged into nationwide lockdown

A circuit-breaker lockdown backed by the Labour leader Keir Starmer would allow the Government to ‘get in control of the test, track and trace system’ and help control the pandemic, the UK’s largest teachers’ union has said.

The National Education Union (NEU) said the move, which would see secondary schools and colleges in England closed for two weeks at half-term, was urgently needed ‘to allow the system to work better’. 

It comes after the Labour leader demanded Britain be plunged into a nationwide ‘circuit-breaker’ as soon as possible as he accused the Prime Minister of losing control of the pandemic. 

Mr Starmer said a complete shutdown lasting two to three weeks could be timed to take place over half-term to minimise disruption but warned ‘sacrifices’ would have to be made to get the virus back under control. 

The growing calls come as Britain recorded another 15,650 cases – 13 per cent higher than the 13,864 recorded last Friday. Health chiefs also announced 136 more deaths, up from the 87 declared a week ago. 

The National Education Union (NEU) has backed a circuit-breaker lockdown and said it would allow the Government to ‘get in control of the test, track and trace system’. (Stock image)

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said taking action now would avoid more disruption later

Separate weekly ONS statistics also showed that the number of people catching the virus in England was still growing and there were almost 28,000 new infections per day in the first week of October. 

The NEU is now calling for secondary schools and colleges to be shut for two weeks, rather than one, over the October half-term to halt the spread of coronavirus.     

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: ‘Heads, teachers and school staff understand the educational impact of this, but we also understand that in exponential epidemics early action is essential.

‘Taking action now can avoid more disruption later.’

On Friday, figures from the ONS showed that the highest rates of infection in England continue to be among young adults and secondary school pupils.

Mr Courtney said: ‘This should be no surprise to either the Prime Minister or the Department for Education – scientists have consistency told them that secondary students transmit the virus as much as adults, and we have warned them that because we have amongst the biggest class sizes in Europe we have overcrowded classrooms and corridors without effective social distancing.

‘Our classrooms often have poor ventilation, leading to airborne transmissions, and in many areas we have also have overcrowded school transport where children are mixing across year-group bubbles.

‘These children live in families and are part of communities, so even if they have few or no symptoms themselves they are still part of spreading the virus to others, including to teachers and other school staff.’

Labour leader Keir Starmer said a nationwide ‘circuit-breaker’ lasting two to three weeks could be timed to take place over half-term to minimise disruption

The Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under increasing pressure to implement a nationwide ‘circuit breaker’

He added: ‘Such a circuit-breaker could allow the Government to get in control of the test, track and trace system, and get cases lower to allow the system to work better.’

The union is also calling on the Government to guarantee the expansion of free school meals for disadvantaged pupils if a circuit-breaker is introduced over the October half-term.

On Tuesday, Government statistics showed that more than one-in-five state secondary schools were not fully open last week.

The proportion of state schools that were partially closed over the past week increased – and most were not fully open due to Covid-related reasons.

This week, leading academics Graham Medley from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and Matt Keeling from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling said a two-week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown in the UK could save thousands of lives before the New Year. 

The professors claimed between 3,000 and 107,000 deaths could be stopped by January if the Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposes the measure.

Prof Medley and Prof Keeling’s joint paper looks at what would happen if a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown was brought in from October 24 to November 7.

The document says the tougher measures could stop 5,000 to 140,000 people being hospitalised with coronavirus by January and may ‘limit the economic damage’.   

In August, the Education Solidarity Network, part of the National Education Union, threatened to boycott the reopening of schools if its demands over coronavirus safety were not met.

The teaching union held a ‘day of action’ as it called for measures including free PPE, smaller classes to allow social distancing and weekly Covid tests for teachers.

James Kerr, a senior figure in the Education Solidarity Network, told The Times: ‘We have already lost colleagues to the virus and will lose more if there is not action.

‘It’s not the Victorian era anymore. Every worker should be able to go to work in the knowledge that they will return alive and well.’  

What is a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown?

Two-week-long ‘circuit breakers’ would see tough restrictions introduced temporarily across the whole country to suppress the virus, before they would be lifted for a time and then re-introduced if necessary.

Measures could include bans on social between households, shutting down hospitality and leisure venues such as bars and restaurants, or restricting their opening hours.

But they are unlikely to lead to schools and offices closing for the time being.

This form of lockdown was first put forward by Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, which he implemented in April.

He closed all workplaces except those deemed essential and place restrictions on public spaces and restaurants.

The idea is seen in England as the ‘last line of defence’, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock last week, with ‘local action’ preferred.

But north of the border in Scotland, a ‘circuit breaker’ has been seen as a temporary solution.

From October 9, pubs and bars in the central belt were being banned from serving alcohol indoors for 16 days and must shut by 6pm.

In large areas north of the border hospitality venues are being told to close altogether.

However there is a debate about the impact such a move has, with some questioning what happens as soon as the ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown is ended.

A circuit-breaker was at the top of a shortlist of coronavirus interventions recommended to the Government by expert advisers last month.

A Sage document, dated September 21 and released just hours after the Prime Minister announced his three-tier system of alert levels for England yesterday, said a package of interventions will be needed to reverse the exponential rise in cases.

Top of the list is a circuit-breaker, a short period of lockdown, ‘to return incidence to low levels’, followed by advice to work from home for all those that can.

Attendees of the September 21 meeting, held via Zoom, included the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty.

The document says both local and national measures are needed, adding: ‘Measures should not be applied in too specific a geographical area.’

A separate Sage document, also dated September 21, looking at the effectiveness and harms of non-pharmaceutical interventions, said a circuit-breaker reintroduced for two to three weeks should act to reduce R below one.

‘Over a fortnight’s ‘break’, two weeks of growth could be exchanged for two weeks of decay in transmission, assuming good adherence to measures, and no additional increase in contacts before of after the break.

‘If this were as strict and well-adhered to as the restrictions in late May, this could put the epidemic back by approximately 28 days or more.

‘The amount of ‘time gained’ is highly dependent on how quickly the epidemic is growing – the faster the growth or stricter the measures introduced, the more time gained.

‘If regulations and behaviour then returned to pre-circuit break levels, there would be a return to exponential growth, but from a significantly lower level than would have been the case without the break.

‘The deleterious impact would be maximised if they coincided with school holidays.

‘Multiple circuit-breaks might be necessary to maintain low levels of incidence,’ the document said.

On Monday evening, Sage scientist Professor Calum Semple warned the new restrictions announced by the PM had come too late and a ‘circuit-breaker’ could be needed within weeks.

Asked if the level of response announced for London is sufficient for the threat, the University of Liverpool academic told BBC Radio 4’s PM: ‘I’m going to be difficult and say no, I think we’re a little late to react.’

He said there is a three-to-four-week delay before interventions see benefits in hospitals.

‘I and other people who were advocating for quite stringent severe local interventions where necessary three to four weeks ago, our fear is now that we’re in another place now,’ he said.

‘And that we’re going to need a much firmer intervention perhaps, the so-called circuit-breaker, in the matter of weeks.

‘The outbreak is a bit like a super-tanker, you put the brakes on but it takes a long time before you see the effect.’

Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick today said the Government had taken ‘robust action’ despite being accused of ignoring its own scientists over a ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown for England.

Mr Jenrick said this had included introducing the rule of six and 10pm curfews for pubs and restaurants but that the Government had also taken a ‘balanced ‘ approach to the situation.

Mr Jenrick told BBC Breakfast: ‘We listened to that advice as we always do and we did take action but these are balanced judgments.

‘We also have to balance that up against the effect on the economy, people’s jobs and livelihoods, on education which we have made a priority and all the other unintended consequences of taking action, whether that is on people’s mental health, on other illnesses and elective surgery that might be delayed or cancelled as a result of that.

‘We took a balanced view as to what was required at that moment and that’s the way we will continue to behave.’ 

Despite it being the reintroduction of restrictions on freedom, nearly two-thirds of the public said they would back a Scottish-style ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown.

An exclusive poll for MailOnline last week found strong support for a ‘short sharp shock’ of tough restrictions across the country in a bid to break transmission chains.

The Redfield & Wilton poll found 63 per cent would back a temporary crackdown being introduced across the UK – including 33 per cent who said they were strongly supportive.

By contrast, just 13 per cent of the 3,000 polled said they would be against the move.

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