The Burner Episode #243: Ease Off, Second Wave + Talking Teachers

James Butler asks what the government ease-off in regulations is really about – should we expect a second wave? Plus, as teachers are pressed back to work, we hear from one trade unionist about what’s really going on in schools.


Good morning. This is The Burner. I’m James Butler and it is Monday June 1, 2020. We are still in lockdown, although of an increasingly theoretical kind.

And that will be, I suspect, the major political battle of this coming week because lockdown is being eased from today. Though evidence, from riding around London this weekend – it’s late spring weather and unseasonably warm, because May is so often damp – through its already half-scorched parks, is that there are certainly a good number of people already treating it like it’s effectively over.

Nonetheless, the easing of restrictions that comes in today allows certain things. People will be allowed to congregate in groups of 6 outdoors, and car showrooms and outdoor markets will reopen. Millions of children will return to primary schools, and the most vulnerable shielded people will be allowed out for the first time since lockdown began in March as long as physical distancing is maintained in all of those circumstances.

A number of experts, however, have begun to raise concerns, including at least 5 scientists who sit on Sage. [They] have warned that this is an extremely dangerous moment. Last night, the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH), a body made up of experts working in public health and local authorities, also spoke out warning it was too early and the rate was still too high. And evidence from the weekend, including packed beaches and parks suggested serious risk.

Many more joined them, even the permanently, near-obsessively, near-derangedly on-message deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries, [who] has been wanting that people “really, really neat to stick to the message”.

These concerns are very highly shared among experts who agree that R, the rate of reproduction, is between 0.7-0.9 and without strict observation of distancing it’s likely to shoot up again and place us back into an exponential growth scenario.

As you heard at the end of last week, many experts regard the measures the government is taking as almost certain xx to increase that number. And yet, the public reaction is also in some ways unsurprising.

As I’ve said on the show before, a good few weeks ago now, if you thought the public communication over going into lockdown was bad, just wait until you see the exit strategy. Going into lockdown was a binary universally applicable state. A gradual easing off, being more complex, requires incredible message, discipline, clear and coherent communications, simple instructions and clear targeting.

Now when you think of any of those phrases, do you think of Boris Johnson? No, me neither.

Some people have been inclined to see more than I think is here on this, suggesting that maybe the government hasn’t moved so far from its initial herd immunity strategy as once widely thought.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that a good few of them have, bubbling away at the back of their brains, that same thought; that ultimately, if there’s no vaccine soon, we’re likely to end up in the situation outlined in the early modelling papers of lockdowns easing on and off as the virus makes its way through the population.

In the absence of a functional track and trace system, or coherent messaging or a sufficiently lowered rate of new cases to make any of that actually consequential, the government simply appears to be gambling. It’s for this reason that many of us, myself included, think that a serious second wave is now probably inevitable – not inevitable like gravity or magnetism or the law of the conservation of energy but inevitable because of its woeful handling of this situation.

So, what is the government thinking? It’s obvious the Serco track and trace program isn’t up to much. And for what it’s worth, I’m not sure it could be, unless the rate of new cases were brought down. And I say that because the initial Sage estimates in February, were that each confirmed case would require about 160 individuals to isolate. Naturally, in serious lockdown, the contact rate comes down. But as of today, with easing off perhaps as of this weekend, it’s going to climb up again – the number of contacts through to each individual is going to climb up again.

And we have not seen since February – despite the many numbers, the many targets and the many plans from the government – an estimate of what the average number of people who will need to be called individually and told to isolate actually is. But if it’s anything like the February estimate at the current rate of infection, that’s around 2 million people a week. Is the Serco program up to that? No.

So, what is the government thinking? Unlike many, I don’t really believe that any of this is motivated by the Cummings debacle – though it has obviously contributed to the level of paranoia and inflexibility in government.

No, my suspicion is that the government has all but accepted there is likely to be a second wave. Now, if you accept that a second wave is likely, then, if you’re a government, your priorities change; then maybe you do ease off a little bit right now, not at least because you think – probably rightly – that people’s mental health probably can’t stand a longer, uninterrupted spell of isolation, especially if they’re living on their own.

And, in part, you can already see that your [inaudible] advice and the prime minister’s inability to go through a briefing, without at least once implying that you can do something like have a big old barbecue and in any case his instinctive amoral winner-takes-all libertarianism, has already prompted people to ease off.

So you hope then – and I should say we do not know this medically – that the warm weather and outside conditions have an effect on transmission. And, above all, you intend and you manage to shift the blame to people as a whole rather than the government which makes these decisions.

Now, you can make a couple of objections to this, I think, but to me the important one is this: It’s classic esoteric politics. That is, it’s about a group of a small group of people with power, knowing about the real truth and planning accordingly, while feeding the wider population either mistruths or partial truths or staggered truths because they believe the public to be so staggeringly stupid as to be unworthy of trust. But I think quite the reverse.

I think that the government is stupider and less competent than it believes itself to be. And I believe that people act like adults only when you treat them as adults. And that, as citizens, we deserve full knowledge of our situation.

Certainly, the government’s decision to treat us like children rather than fully active participants, doesn’t appear to be working.

Lots over the weekend and the papers on all of this, although not always directly.

In a story about the Cummings debacle, we hear a Tory source say: “I think at the root of all this is libertarianism. He doesn’t actually believe in locking everyone down. He knows he needs to, but he understands why people might transgress and he can’t bring himself to criticise it.” (The “he” there, by the way, is Boris Johnson not Dominic Cummings.)

Perhaps you could also say a narcissistic drive for self-gratification might well replace libertarianism there. It glorifies it too much to give it the abstract name of an ideology, even one so fatuous as right-wing libertarianism.

But alongside reports that Johnson needs all the help possible, because he’s both lazy and also still far from recovered from the coronavirus – as was very visible in his crash and burn performance in the liaison committee last week – it’s striking that this isn’t a time to have a void at the centre of government. But very much a void we have. A moral, ethical, political and intellectual void.

He is apparently fed up with the job. I assure you not as much as we are.

But all this political speculation does seem in some respects rather pointless. If Cummings went, even he you took Johnson with him, no election would follow save within the ranks of the Tory party itself. People’s brains have been too conditioned by the volatility of the past five years.

In fact, in normal times an election is a very hard thing to achieve, save when the government wants it. This is the government. That fact is miserable but perhaps also freeing. Certainly, it might free up the opposition to realise its hand is a bit freer than it thinks at the moment and perhaps it is time to do some opposing.

And one place where that might be needed is on schools, where so far the Labour Party’s position has been frankly bitterly disappointing, as its top team have even gone out of the way not to condemn the government over its push for schools to open to more learners from today despite teaching unions. According to one survey this morning, 47% of parents [are] being so strongly opposed enough to keep their kids away.

Is this another bit of clever 8-dimensional chess? That’s always worked out well before for the Labour Party. But this is a major political question. And it’s one which touches on pretty much everything; from the nature of schools and their place in the political system, through to union organising at moments like this. So, I asked one teacher to fill us in.

Nik: Hi James, and good morning to all the Novara listeners. My name’s Nik. I’m a religious education (RE) teacher in a secondary school near Bristol and I’m a national education union rep and branch officer. I’m also a host of the Requires Improvement podcast.

The talk about schools opening is really shorthand for extending opening to more kids. School has been open the whole time, even over the Easter and half-term holidays. It’s worth saying that teachers and support staff haven’t been furloughed. We’ve done different amounts of work from home, much like the kids in that respect.

Some have been in rota in schools, managing the few kids in that day, most of them working from home setting homework, attending meetings, planning for next year, working on resources, calling duties. Some of the worst academy chains have been insisting on virtual teaching. But for most teachers, the workload has been manageable.

It’s really hard to keep track of what is actually going to happen on June 1. Most of the primaries that I’ve heard of in South Gloucestershire, which is just North of Bristol, are delaying by at least a week on the grounds that they need more time to plan.

In North Somerset, to the South of Bristol, the Weston-super-Mare General Hospital’s hospital has experienced a sharp uptick of Covid-19 cases and has had to close to new patients.

I blame the good weather and the embarrassing government messaging. The combination of that, and the local union muscle has been that no schools there are extending opening on June 1.

In the city of Bristol, the mayor has gone for an irritating compromise position saying that he will support schools who don’t want to open, but he won’t instruct any school to stay closed as long as they are satisfied with the health and safety procedures.

This doesn’t help those members in the big horrible academy chains, where union reps are systemically victimised. They’re proudly opening the doors. One chain even boasted of buying up PPE in the early lockdown so they could get back as quickly as possible.

Our mayor says he’s following the NEU line, but he isn’t. Because no school is safe until our 5 tests are met.

One of them is that track and trace needs to be in place, and it simply isn’t. No schools are safe until we have far fewer numbers of cases either. A crude analogy would be that it doesn’t matter how well-disinfected the buses, or if you have your seatbelt on, if the bus is heading towards the edge of a cliff. The schools with strong union presence, and those lucky enough to have a head teacher who has a spine or the ability to understand simple science, are lucky in that they won’t be rushing to open.

For our members in schools without that, our advice has come down to a version of the section 44 advice; that they should refuse to enter a site they think is unsafe and the NEW will back them.

With parents, we have to go on our petitions and surveys about the intention to send them back, and the behaviour of the past several weeks. Schools remained open to key worker kids and those from certain disadvantaged backgrounds. But I think about 25% of kids were eligible, but it’s been more like 1% that have been coming in. So, about 1,700 kids come to my secondary school and there’s been about 10 kids in per day for the last few weeks.

Primary schools have had a higher number and the picture is mixed, by getting the impression that majority of parents have done everything they can to keep their kids away. The other telling statistics are where you compare a family’s income to their likelihood of sending the kids back in: there’s a direct correlation, the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to send your kids back and vice versa.

For all this talk about reopening for disadvantaged peoples, who the Tory said didn’t exist a few months ago because there’s no child poverty apparently, I can’t imagine many will be queuing up on Monday morning.

There’s the odd parent group. We’ve talked about organising boycotts, but the fact that there are no consequences for not sending in your child means that parents will just make their own decisions whether to risk it or not.

Hopefully they take the advice of the national organisations that represent teachers, support staff, heads, doctors, scientists, train drivers and the school governors, over the advice from Andrew Adonis and Alan Johnson, but we’ll just have to see.

The NEU is by far the biggest education union here. It’s the biggest in Europe and we’ve had something like 20,000 new members joined recently. This is a good thing, although they potentially just sit as an insurance policy. The number we’re more excited by is the number of new reps, something like 2,000. All our online training for workplace and health safety reps has been oversubscribed, and we’re seeing people in primaries – traditionally the most under unionized sector – stepping up where there’s not been a rep for years. Locally, we’re seeing younger teachers becoming reps to support the more established ones in their schools.

The other phenomena we’re seeing is really well-attended meetings. Quite often, union meetings, especially in rural areas, are [inaudible] but we struggle to make the quorate numbers needed to conduct union democracy and run effective campaigns. You end up with a very committed core of a handful of activists who volunteer their precious little time to run the local union and a lot of the work is propped up with retired teachers.

Under Covid, we’re seeing packed zoom meetings across the country; members asking for advice and support and other more experienced members helping them out. [There are] discussions being had about where we should go with education after this and what we can do about it.

One national zoom call with the general secretaries had 20,000 people on it, well 19,999 – one of them was a Daily Mail reporter. But still, it’s probably a record for an online union meeting and it was just one of the many up and down the country in all school settings.

I hope to run the young educator network in Bristol and we spent this time phone banking. This has involved calling all the members in the area who don’t have reps in their schools to check up on their welfare, point them towards union advice and persuade them to become reps, or at least Covid contacts, a type of temporary rep.

It’s been amazing to see how much work local, younger members have put in. I know a few of them from the pub-based political education as we did before all of this, but they’ve really stepped up. They’ve made hundreds of phone calls, started reading group, done online training and organised with the members in their schools. Out members have also supported other unions and mutual aid groups, like Acorn and Bristol’s National Food Service both with their time and donations from union funds.

Nationally and locally, we’re thinking about how we can adopt the deep organising model – as explained in Jane McAlevey’s book, No Shortcuts, which led to the successful teacher strikes in the US over the last few years.

A few of us took the organising for power online seminar that she ran a few weeks ago and we’re keen to put it into wider practice in our schools at a branch level. So, for example, we used her pointers to write our phone banking script, and I’ve changed the language I use when I email the members of my school. There are influential people in the union nationally who are open to this form of organising, as well as a NEU faction called the Education Solidarity Network who were pushing it too.

Basically, union organising is about having face to face conversations and empowering workers to do things for themselves. The union is not some separate entity that exists outside of its members. The union is the members in the workplace, supported by structures of other workers in other workplaces. I think it’s fair to say that the left is lacking in strong leadership at the moment, but I think our general secretaries, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted have been pretty exemplary. This is mainly because they understand it’s not all about them. They represent us, but they can’t do anything for us, nor should we expect them to. It’s ordinary members telling their heads it’s not safe. Reps coordinate the members and the union’s national structures provide the support and the resources.

The NEU’s strategy throughout all this has been to get members in each workplace to sign a letter saying that they wouldn’t cooperate with planning for June 1 opening. Then to have the heads agree to work through a superbly burdensome health and safety checklist to show how June 1 was unworkable.

Our union’s national leadership had been trying to negotiate with the government at the top, but despite some victories, like the delay or climb down in opening secondary schools, the victories will be with members in individual schools collectively saying “no, not until it’s safe”.

Hopefully this feeling of being part of something powerful is infectious to members who are new to all this. We’ve had people in meetings cautiously asking some really telling questions: My head won’t show us the risk assessment, is this wrong? My son’s got diabetes, but my school wants me in, what should I do? It just shows how persistently educators that are brow-beaten and guilt-tripped into accepting unacceptable working conditions and poor management.

Hopefully our organising locally has been able to give people more dignity and the confidence to stick up for themselves in the future. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.

My money is on a small increase in numbers in school in the first week, with a gradual tailing-off as kids and parents find the whole experience of socially-distanced schooling thoroughly miserable – verging on traumatising – and, ultimately, educationally pointless.

The delays over opening do represent a victory for the union movement in this country. I’ve heard the resistance and defiance of this government policy compared to the refusals to pay poll tax. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t, but it’s definitely significant. All over the country, huge numbers of parents who voted Conservative a few months ago will refuse to do what the government instructs and will in fact side with the trade union movement. That’s got to give you some hope, or at least some direction for what to aim for during the next 4 and a bit years.

To anyone who feels deflated and dispirited by the Labour Party at the moment, now is the perfect time to become an active union member. Become a rep or branch officer. Do some online training, contact your local branch and ask how you can get involved. Offered starting a reading group or host an online meeting on a subject you’re really passionate about. You could even start a lefty podcast for your union or profession. We managed it and we’re idiots.

Imagine what we could achieve if every one of the country’s 6 million union members did their little bit to improve their workplace. If you got a taste for canvassing in the cold last year, you’ll much prefer union involvement. Union stuff is much sexier, much better resourced, and you’ll get to feel like you’re winning far more often. I’ll just stand on a quote that I was told at my reps training that sums up: Join a union, yes. But union membership is not an insurance policy, it’s a gym membership. You can pay your subs every month, but if you don’t turn up and take part, you don’t get any stronger”.

Thanks for listening and keep looking after each other. Bye bye.


JB: My thanks to Nik for that. There’s so much in there that’s really useful and important. Not least stressing that the idea that schools have been shut can suggest that teachers have been sat on their arses. That’s an image that’s helpful to the government as they push schools to open out more widely, but it’s not one that’s based in fact at all.

And it really is, I think, hugely important to stress that above any legal provision, any formal right, any right that you have on paper, the union is the members and rights are enforced only by its strength.

And do pop on over and check out Nik’s podcast, Requires Improvement. Their Twitter is at @requirespod. And we’ll be sure to stay in touch as the question of schools rattles on this week and various teachers find themselves in some very difficult position.

Alright, as obviously you will know – and I’m sure many of you have been glued to it over that weekend – protests continue in the US sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis last week.

Obviously, you would have seen some of the astonishing images circulating on social media and in the press over the course of the weekend and, of course, they grace many of the digital front pages this morning.

Protests have spread across US cities. Curfews have been both imposed and broken. It’s really like watching a long, towering wave start to break. And as I follow online and talk to friends in the US, I’m struck by the number saying that it feels different this time. Of course, every time it feels different and every time has the hope for lasting change in it. And I hope it’s different too.

And it is stunning that just this morning, you’re seeing flames in Washington itself and Trump fleeing, at least briefly, to a bunker somewhere. I don’t know how this ends and there’s pretty grim stuff coming from Trump’s Twitter feed, about prescribing Antifa – not in fact an organisation which exists but a name for anti-fascist organising perhaps… When a law like that was last proposed about prescribing Antifa – which has become, by the way, this sort of conspiracy theory, bogeyman of the ultra-right in the United States – as a draft bill by Ted Cruz. Remember him? He was a contender for the presidential nomination beaten out by Trump.

But when that [draft bill] was supposed to drop, it simply looked like banning all left-wing organisation to court. I don’t think a court could uphold such a ban in the United States – perhaps with the United States Supreme court, who knows. But it seems to me a very clear indicator of intent.

And as it happens, I was reading over the course of the weekend Mike Davis’s new history of Los Angeles in the 1960s, called Set the Night on Fire: L.A. in the Sixties. It of course has a chapter on the Watts Rebellion in 1965, where Davis describes the widespread property destruction there as an emotionally-infused but rational strategy which arises partly as a consequence there having been no other means of political action available and purely peaceful action being roundly unable to achieve the sense of urgency they felt so needed.

Anyway, those protests continue. And, as I say, I don’t know how they end, but the violence from the police looks pretty extreme. So, all our thoughts and our solidarity with those in the United States without justice, there can be no peace.

Ahead of us today here, British police grumble about the new coronavirus regulations, which really do appear to be a pretty terrible mess. And enforcement may be next to impossible.

Papers covering various places and decisions simply just to flout regulations, including a rave in East London. all of which was surely prompted by the government spending all of last week chipping away at the credibility of any of those regulations.

Raab suggested yesterday that there might be regional lockdowns but a a head of the Royal college of pathologists says today the track and trace programme is absolutely not up to it.

Jacob Rees Mogg’s eccentric plans for a return to the Commons and the end of digital voting will surface today including the kilometre-long queue for in-person voting in parliament. All this to get Boris some cheerleaders as he shambles his way through PMQs on a Wednesday. Just quit already.

Brexit talks continue this week and I’ll leave you with this thought for today. What would a corona spike lockdown, winter flu crisis and a no deal Brexit look like if they all came hand in hand this winter? How’s that for a reasonable worst-case scenario?

All right. As ever, do get in touch, I’m on [email protected], perhaps especially get in touch if you’re working in care or in education at the moment. Believe me, we’re all thinking of you.

Otherwise stay safe, stay home. Wash your hands, mask up perhaps – either here or in the United States – and don’t be a prick.

That’s it. This is The Burner. I’ll see you tomorrow.


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