The widespread use of section 44 to enforce school closures is the biggest demonstration of workers power since the start of the pandemic. Section 44 has been used by small groups of workers to win improved health and safety during the pandemic, but this action by members of the National Education Union should make the section 44 tactic more widely known.
The level of infection in the community is at crisis point. If it continues to increase then the NHS will collapse resulting in avoidable deaths. Reducing the social mixing that takes place within schools will help slow the spread.
Now that so many schoolworkers are refusing to attend their workplace due to safety concerns, negotiations will have to take place between management and workers, and between government and union leaders, over what safety standards need to be in place before a return to full opening. Schoolworker unions have demanded mass testing. However, just as important is full sick and isolation pay for all. If parents and caregivers cannot afford to take time off work to isolate then many will continue to go to work, and continue to send their infectious children into school.
Official studies show that less than one in five people comply with isolation rules. That means for every two people who are isolating, there are another 8 or more infected people carrying on as normal. The Government know that financial necessity is driving infected people into work.
The UK (alongside Malta) has the worst Statutory Sick Pay in the Europe paying just £95.85 a week. About 12 million workers are reliant on this scheme if they have to isolate. The government recognises that the scheme is inadequate. In March they brought in emergency measures to ensure outsourced workers in the NHS could isolate on full pay. In June they set up an Infection Control Fund to try to encourage carehome providers to pay full isolation pay. In September they introduced a £500 one off payment for certain categories of low paid worker. But despite these schemes, millions of workers remain in the impossible situation of having to choose between isolating or putting food on the table.
At the start of the pandemic, the US federal government introduced a limited isolation payment for around 20 million workers. An epidemiological study found that this measure alone has prevented 600,000 infections and thousands of deaths.
The closure of schools is a sign that the governments strategy has failed and the virus is out of control. The responsible direct action by schoolworkers to move to remote learning will help slow the spread in the short term. But emergency measures to ensure everyone has the job security and financial means to isolate would reduce the R rate, make all our workplaces safer and would allow schoolchildren to get back into the classroom.
Schoolworkers should demand full isolation pay for all, including full paid carers leave for any adults who need to take time off work to care for isolating children. Workers everywhere should follow the schoolworkers example and use section 44 in any workplace where there are workers without rights to full isolation pay.