Union calls for action over school Covid rates

GMB says authorities are 'dragging their heels'

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By Natalie Bloomer

The two unitary councils and Public Health Northamptonshire should be doing more to tackle Covid rates in our schools, a union officer has told NN Journal.

This comes as local infection rates continue to be higher than the national average. Kettering and Wellingborough have recently had some of the highest rates in the country and schools across the county have been hit by outbreaks. 

Regional officer for the GMB union Rachelle Wilkins said she has held meetings with both West and North Northamptonshire unitary councils but is disappointed by the time it is taking for them to respond to her. She said she has recently been made aware of one school in the county where 50 per cent of students had tested positive.

“I met with the North unitary a week ago last Friday and raised our concerns. We said ‘look we want you to use the Cambridgeshire model where measures have been reintroduced in schools’. They told us they’d take it away but we haven’t heard back from them - that was 10 days ago. They’ve wasted over a week when action could have been taken,” she told NN Journal.

Wilkins says the response from the West has been more positive but there has still been no firm answer as to whether measures will be reintroduced.

Wilkins is also frustrated by the response from Public Health Northamptonshire saying the message from director Lucy Wightman seems to be ‘there’s not a lot we can do because of the government guidance’. 

“The government guidance is just that, it’s guidance,” Wilkins said. “There is nothing to stop Northamptonshire from issuing our own recommendations to schools as they have in Cambridgeshire. Our authorities need to be working with Lucy Wightman to take action and stop dragging their heels.”

Directors of public health and education in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough wrote to secondary schools across the area earlier this month recommending that some Covid measures were reintroduced. That included mask wearing in communal spaces but not classrooms, social distancing for staff within school buildings, and non-essential events where parents visit school to be moved online. 

Other areas such as Wolverhampton, Staffordshire, Cumbria and some London boroughs have also encouraged schools to take various measures which differ from government guidance to help slow down infection rates in their areas.

On October 11 a joint letter from five unions was sent to all local authorities and directors of public health in the country asking them to consider taking action. The letter said:

“We are writing as unions representing school leaders, teachers, and support staff, asking you to take urgent steps to help keep pupils safe in schools within your locality. As you will be aware, Government data shows that Covid-19 cases among school-aged children surged to a record high in recent weeks.

“We are therefore pleased to see that a growing number of councils are now using the freedoms they have under the Department for Education guidance to bring in additional mitigations in schools. This reflects their responsibilities for public health and also under health and safety legislation.

“To help keep pupils and staff safely in schools we would therefore urge you to issue advice which strongly encourages all schools in your areas to introduce such additional measures immediately, discuss that advice with our local representatives, and involve them in monitoring matters if you do not already do so.”

A recent meeting of the Covid Oversight Board in Northamptonshire heard that the vaccination programme for 12-15 year-olds started this month and has so far visited 22 education settings. 

The programme, which is being run by the School Age Immunisation Service from NHFT, is being ramped up in the coming weeks and before half term all schools and parents should receive information about when the vaccine team will be visiting. 

The meeting was told the uptake in this age range has been varied with the highest consent rate from parents being 70 per cent at one school.

Lucy Wightman told the meeting that the situation in schools was ‘really challenging’ and that Public Health Northamptonshire was giving head-teachers as much support as possible. 

She said one of the reasons why schools have seen such a spike in cases is because restrictions were lifted before children returned to school in September. She said this led to lots of transmission in the community which was then taken into schools at the beginning of term. 

The other age range which has seen high rates is 40-49 year-olds, which Wightman said is due to parents catching the virus from their school-aged children.

Speaking about the relaxing of Covid restrictions, she said ‘Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.’ She told the meeting she had lobbied the government for tighter rules to be reintroduced. 

Asked about why rates had been so high in Kettering, where one in 16 secondary school children tested positive at one stage this term, Wightman said it was down to a lower uptake of the vaccine, high deprivation levels and higher community rates. But she also noted there had been a local fair, a circus and some inter-school sporting events in the area. 

Yesterday saw the highest daily cases in the UK since mid-July prompting warnings that we could be facing a “challenging” winter.

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