UK: Education trade unions mobilised to denounce ‘chaotic’ reopening of schools, advising members not to return, prompting government’s U-turn

5 January 2021

The COVID 19 outbreak is a public health crisis quite different than anything Europe has faced for many years. As education personnel and their trade unions grapple with the outbreak, we are supporting and informing member organisations in any way we can.

As schools across Europe are reopening following the winter holidays and amidst soaring COVID-19 infections numbers in the United Kingdom, the government decided, following pressure from education trade unions, to halt the reopening of schools.

After a chaotic first day of schools reopening, the United Kingdom government backtracked from its initial position, closing schools across the country and issuing lockdown measures for England and Scotland until February. This decision comes after wide uproar from education trade unions over the winter holidays. Education trade unions had welcomed the initial decision to deploy testing for all pupils and staff in view of a two-stages return to school, see  20 December 2020 joint statement. However, without the necessary logistical measures for the administration of these tests in schools the plan was doomed to fail. Unrealistically the government had relied on schools to recruit and train volunteers to administer the tests on short notice over the winter closure and without assistance. This jeopardised the testing efforts and lead to many schools not conducting the testing and put tremendous pressure on education staff. Moreover, on 22 December 2020 the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned of a high and difficult to manage reproduction rate of the virus, advising for schools to remain closed for the foreseeable future. 

Despite these warnings, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson persistently stated that schools were safe and urged parents to send their children to school. On 4 January 2021, as most schools reopened  in the United Kingdom, several education and public services trade union organisations issued a joint statement denouncing this hasty reopening as unsafe for their affiliates and calling for an immediate move to online teaching until at least mid-January. Amongst the initiatives taken, the NEU launched a public petition demanding that health and safety authorities use this remote teaching period to assess the transmission rate of the new variant of COVID-19 and to implement measures effectively ensuring safer schools. Amongst the many actions taken by the NASUWT is its statement on the reopening of schools.

Looking ahead and as Europe undergoes a new wave of COVID-19 infections, ETUCE European Director states: “ETUCE continues supporting its member organisations, many of whom are likely to face similar struggles in ensuring the health and safety of their affiliates. ETUCE stands with its member organisations in their demands for healthy and safe working conditions in the education sector and the recovery of this fundamental profession beyond the pandemic. We work together for healthy, safe, and inclusive schools, in line with the ETUCE statement The Road to Recovery from the COVID-19 Crisis.”

Read the Blog Article “Taking Action to Keep School Pupils, Staff and Communities Safe in England”, by Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney (NEU, UK).

Find more information on the education trade union actions in the UK at: