Covid in Birmingham schools: union boss threatens industrial action over safety measures from council

The General Secretary of Birmingham Education Union has threatened to advise its 8,000 members to strike

The head of Birmingham Education Union has slammed the city council for not reintroducing more measures to curb the spread of Covid-19 in the classroom, and claimed that the local authority has “failed in its legal duty of care towards school staff employees and pupils”.

David Room, General Secretary, said the union will "explore the possibility" of taking Birmingham City Council to court over the way it has managed the Covid risk to its schools.

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He added that the union could advise its 8,000 members in Birmingham’s schools to take strike action for “refusing to take the necessary action to protect its school staff and pupils”.

But the city council has refuted Mr Room’s claims, with its director for public health saying the authority has been “proactive in all of its efforts to work with schools to ensure appropriate measures are in place to keep staff and students safe across the city."

The government announced at the start of this year that face coverings will have to be worn in classrooms and communal areas in England’s secondary schools until January 26, with the country recording record high Covid-19 cases due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Although primary school pupils are not required to wear masks in classrooms like secondary students, Mr Room said Birmingham City Council hasn’t taken advice from the union to ask its primary schools to also reintroduce face coverings.

The government has promised to provide 7,000 additional air purification devices for schools, but although Mr Room said he welcomed the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary schools and the additional air purification devices, he said the new measures have been introduced too late.

He claimed the city council’s ‘excuses’ for not implementing further mitigation measures in schools was partly due to a “fear of criticism from the Department of Education”.

Children's literacy and numeracy skills have been affected by the pandemic

What has the Birmingham Education Union said about the city council?

In a statement issued to BirminghamWorld, Mr Room said Birmingham City Council has “failed to show any leadership” on the issue of Covid-19 in schools.

He said: “The NEU welcomes the recent advice from the DfE on the reintroduction of face coverings in secondary schools and the promise of 7000 additional air purification devices for schools.

“Given that there are over 300,000 classrooms in England, the 7,000 additional purification devices must be seen as a token gesture by a government that has continually failed school staff, pupils and their parents throughout the pandemic.

“The NEU and sister trade unions have repeatedly called on the council to encourage its schools to reintroduce effective mitigation measures to help reduce the spread of Covid with the aim of keeping schools open. Instead, senior council staff responsible for making such decisions have continually shirked their responsibilities.

“Excuses for not implementing effective mitigation measures in council schools include a fear of criticism from the DfE and not wanting to confuse school leaders with a different message on Covid compared to those emanating from the DfE.

“This shameful lack of leadership effectively means that Birmingham City Council has wilfully decided to be subservient to the DfE on the issue. As a result, the union believes that council has failed in its legal duty of care towards its school staff employees, pupils and local communities.”

Mr Room also claimed that the city council attempted to argue that there isn’t enough evidence of a Covid problem in the city to allow it to put mitigation measures in place.

He added: “Given that Covid cases in the city have continued to climb for many weeks, with the most recent data available showing current case rates in some areas of the city at an astronomically high 2000+ per 100,000 population (with a number of other wards in the city not far behind) and given that there was a 50% increase of Covid cases in the city in the 7 days to 1 January 2022, this argument beggars belief.

“In addition, the council continues to refuse to ask its primary schools to reintroduce face coverings yet the Covid data for schools during December 2021 shows that Covid cases were higher in Birmingham’s primary schools that in its secondary schools.”

Mr Room said the union could look to take the city council to court over the matter.

“The union will now be forced to issue advice to all Birmingham members on the use of industrial action is schools where health and safety is at risk from insufficient Covid mitigation measures,” he said.

“We will also be advising members of their right under Section 44 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 to withdraw from workplaces which pose a serious and imminent danger from Covid. In addition, the union will be exploring the possibility of a judicial review into the way Birmingham City Council has managed the Covid risk to its schools.

“It is most unfortunate that the union must now pursue matters in this way, but the Council’s abject failure, indeed refusal, to take meaningful action to make schools as Covid safe as possible despite months of requests to do so, gives us no choice.”

Birmingham City Council Director of Public Health Dr Justin Varney in the Council Chamber with Leader Ian Ward

‘We do not accept the claims made’

Dr Justin Varney, Director for Public Health at Birmingham City Council said the local authority do not accept Mr Room’s claims.

He said: “The council has been proactive in all of its efforts to work with schools to ensure appropriate measures are in place to keep staff and student safe across the city.

“We do not accept the claims made as we have been continuing to work with central government to ensure that we are doing everything possible. The Department for Education have been clear on their position on risk reduction measures and the flexibility allowed when there are outbreaks.

“The rate of school absence due to Covid in Birmingham schools remains below the national average and schools have worked hard to contain outbreaks which have not reached the levels seen in some other areas of the country.

“The council continues to work closely with head teachers to protect children and staff and encourage standard risk reduction steps in all schools and support schools where there are outbreaks to add enhanced measures.

“The risk to the health of children themselves from covid itself remains lower than for adults and there are significant concerns about the short- and long-term effects of disrupting children’s education.

“We continue to review what is happening in schools to balance supporting children’s education and further transmission of the virus. Working with head teachers within the boundaries set by the Department for Education we are navigating the ongoing challenge of pandemic to support children to have the best start in life.”

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