Camden UNISON has long been actively challenging racism in the workplace and the wider community. We have marched against the far right Nazis like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (better known as ‘Tommy Robinson’), we have marched against police brutality here and around the world.
The murder of George Floyd last week by Minnesota police showed that although much has changed since the civil rights and Black power movements associated with Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, there is still a lot to be done. We stand with those protesting to say Black Lives Matter and in opposition to a president who threatens to use military force against them.
Institutional racism is built into every aspect of society and as well as discriminating against people based on the colour of their skin, it also makes racists and racist organisations more confident. We are proud that Camden UNISON has been at the forefront of challenging this. As a trade union we want to see a better, fairer society. That means organising and resisting to end the low pay and poverty that is experienced in particular by our Black members, but also fighting for a world free from the racism and bigotry that can divide us.
On Wed 17 June we are holding an online event, Soul and the Civil Rights Movement and we would urge you to join it. We would also like you to join in with the ‘Take A Knee’ protest this Wednesday, 3 June, on your doorstep (details in the Stand Up To Racism link below).
The Government have put Camden UNISON members in schools at risk by asking schools to open from 1st June. On 28th May they explained that there were probably 4 times as many new cases than the official number of positive tests, the majority of infectious people passed on the disease prior to showing symptoms or were asymptomatic and they were just launching their test, track and trace system which experts believe is fundamental to the wider opening of schools.
Camden UNISON members met to discuss the opening and raised a number of issues. See our Q&A response. This should help you to organise workplace meetings to decide if it’s safe to open your school.
Are You Safe If You’re School Opens to Wider Groups of Children
Is it Safe to Open Schools on 1st June?
On Thursday 28th June the Government confirmed they would reopen schools when the science isn’t there to say it is safe. They admitted the numbers infected each day were 4 times higher than those tested and they only knew who 25% of the newly infected were; that the virus was more infectious before people showed symptoms than after they showed symptoms; and many infectious people showed no symptoms at all.
After our meeting on Thursday 21st UNISON HQ forwarded evidence from the Independent SAGE Committee who produced an interim report on whether it was safe to open schools to a wider group of children.
Their report said that two major factors needed to be in place for it to be safe for schools to open wider for staff, parents and the wider community:
Low COVID-19 infections in the local community
The ability to respond rapidly to any new infections through a ‘test, track and isolate’ strategy.
They conclude that it is not safe because neither are in place. In Camden especially the second point. They further conclude that every two weeks the risk of infection is halved. The Government also announced that ‘Test, Track and Trace’ will begin from 1st June.
I have written to Councillor Mason to ask her to advise schools not to open until 15th June. She has responded to say that she will not and let schools make their individual decisions.
You should now have access to a UNISON letter that allows you to write to the school to say that you do not believe it is safe for schools to open to more children. This letter protects your right o not work if you are in imminent danger.
Is it the Law that schools have to open on June 1st?
No, the Government made clear that if their five tests were met then schools should begin to open from 1st June. They have made clear to all education Trade Unions, including UNISON, that opening from that date is an aspiration and not legally enforceable. School’s do not have to open on that date, in that week or in that month.
Who will carry out the Risk Assessments in my school?
This work will probably be done by the Headteacher in conjunction with SLT and a member of the Governing Body to start off with. However you must be consulted on the Risk Assessment and you are entitled to receive UNISON advice and propose amendments to their plan. It is best if school support staff agree the amendments they want to put as a group.
Can the union request all Heads provide their risk assessments and return plans to their staff
As above, you must be consulted on the draft Risk Assessment and get a final copy. When you receive the final version you should ask UNISON to give you advice on whether it is safe for you to return to school.
If my partner has a health problem, can the school force me to come to work? My son has asthma and I want to keep him home but may have to take unpaid leave to stay home or work part-time?
UNISON has a national agreement that should be reflected in your school’s Risk Assessment. If you live with someone or care for someone who is ‘shielded’ or is vulnerable if they catch COVID-19 then you can only come to work if the school can operate stringent social distancing. If they can’t you should work from home. If that’s not possible you should remain at home.
Your doctor will tell you whether any illness of someone you live with makes them vulnerable or shielded.
The school should assess the risk to you and include travel to work. You must continue to receive full pay. If you have any problems with the school because of this, please contact UNISON.
Can I refuse to work if you don’t feel comfortable with going back to school? I haven’t any underlying health issues
If you feel your Health & Safety is at risk then you can. Please see below what are my health & safety rights?
Can someone refuse to come into work if they are worried about traveling into work?
Travelling to work is part of the risk assessment. You should discuss your arrangements with the school especially if you have to travel by public transport. The Government is recommending that you should not travel by public transport at the moment because it carries an additional risk. If you feel that risk is too high you should let the school know and ask if there are alternatives to travelling into school.
You should have an individual risk assessment for travel if you have to use public transport.
Can office staff continue to work remotely if it is decided schools will open on the 1st June?
The school could allow this to continue. The school is opening for wider groups of children not for it to perform admin functions. If you can work from home and the school can manage a reception service then there is no need for all the office staff to return to work on the school site. You should discuss this but let UNISON know if there are any problems.
I’m worried that if I stay self-isolating and there are job cuts in September it would be used against me
Of course it will be difficult to show the link. However if you are not at work for health & safety reasons then legally they cannot treat you in a detrimental way.
Are there any additional procedures for BME members, who are supposedly 4 times more likely to die if they contract COVID-19?
Yes there are. UNISON has asked schools to include a point in the risk assessment that individual risk assessments are carried out for Black staff and for those from an economically more deprived household. The evidence shows that staff in these categories are more likely to suffer serious illness or death.
The school should make sure they discuss any additional health risks and fully take into account any concerns you have. If you are still not satisfied with these steps you can make a decision on your health & safety.
Should it be a teacher per bubble? Is it ok for TA’s to teach in a bubble?
The Government say that if there aren’t enough teachers for each bubble then you can use support staff. The only support staff that can teacher under guidance from a teacher are HLTAs. If you are asked to teach a bubble without a teacher present you must ask to be paid the HLTA rate. If the school refuses then you are within you’re right to refuse to do this as it is not a reasonable request.
The bubbles are not the same as the critical workers and vulnerable children’s provision provided in schools up to now. Those provision are not full teaching. The bubbles will be.
UNISON has advised all schools that this should be clear in their planning and risk assessments.
Is it mandatory to have 2 staff per “bubble”?
It is not mandatory but it would not be wise to have less than two staff in a bubble. The staff in the bubbles cannot transfer to another group and should be self-contained. If a child needs to go to the toilet or if the member of staff needs a lunch break then another member of staff cannot take over.
Should it be one child per small desk?
The Government does not expect primary school children to stay 2m apart. However the Key Stage 2 classes should be set up so that the children are kept 2m apart. Your school’s Risk Assessment and desk layout in each classroom must space children 2m apart.
It is harder in Key Stage 1 and the Early Years. In these Years it is more important to keep the children in small consistent groups. Staff should be allocated to these groups only and not other tasks.
Will staff be expected to change nursery children’s nappies?
If you are required to provide personal care or work with children where physical intervention is needed e.g. first aid or medication that a child cannot take themselves then the school must provide you with PPE including gloves, fluid resistant face masks and aprons depending on the circumstances.
What are my health & safety rights?
You have the right not to suffer any detriment if you refuse to return to your place of work because you reasonably believe it would put you in serious or imminent danger and take that action to protect yourself or other people from that danger. This is a paraphrase of the legislation and once you have the final risk assessment we will provide you with advice on the danger you or others face and if the school’s place put you in danger.
We have asked UNISON nationally to provide you with legal advice as well.
As this is legal advice, it can only be tested in law and that means potentially an Employment Tribunal.
We are advising you to hold a meeting of members to discuss your school’s final Risk Assessment so that you can all hear the advice and then decide how you act on that advice.
Following on from the meeting we had online yesterday and a number of meetings we have had with UNISON members working in different schools, we have a couple of things you may be able to get involved with.
No Going Back To Unsafe Schools – socially distant protest
Monday 1 June, 5.30pm
Hunter Street steps to the Brunswick Centre, WC1N 1BS
Protesting is very difficult at the moment, and we have generally kept to online meetings. However, the government has pushed hard for schools to take in more children from next week and here in Camden the response has been varied. We have said that the council should join other councils in saying none of the schools should increase their numbers as there is no test, trace and track system in place in the community, and that schools have not been able to be made safe enough not to risk the children, staff and wider community. This risk is increased now that the government has said people can meet up to 6 others outdoors.
Unfortunately, Camden hasn’t done this, and schools are making their own decisions about increasing numbers. Although some have said they aren’t doing this yet, and are looking at how they can make the schools as safe as possible, seeing what the testing system shows over the next week or two, some schools are saying they will have more children in next week, and we do not believe all of them have adequately prepared for this. We are outlining with our members in those schools what they can do, and that they have the full support of our branch, but there are a couple of things other UNISON members can do to support them.
If you live within reasonable walking/cycling distance of the Brunswick Centre, please come along to our socially distanced protest at 5.30pm on Monday – do NOT use public transport to come. We are trying to make a point without increasing risk! We will be meeting on the steps on Hunter St (near the cinema) where there is plenty of room to stand spaced apart. In particular if you work in a school or are a parent/grandparent it would be great if you can safely make it.
Sign the online letter
If you cannot make Monday afternoon, the please do sign the online letter – the link is below. We are asking every member to do this as it’s for people who live or work in Camden:
If you work in a school and do not believe that a proper risk assessment has been completed or that it is not safe for staff to work there with increased numbers of children, appended below is a letter that you can complete outlining why it’s unsafe and why therefore you will not be attending work. It’s also designed so you can ask other staff in your school to sign with you. If you want to discuss if this is what you should do in your school, please contact me or Hugo Pierre at email@example.com as soon as possible.
Letter for school staff :
re: Health and Safety
I am writing, on behalf of the signatories to this letter, to inform you that, in order for members of your staff to protect themselves and/or other persons from danger, the staff named below will not be attending [name of school/college] to work there at present. They will continue to be available to work from home.
Since the government announced its decision to extend the opening of schools the impact that has in terms of the health and safety of pupils, staff and the community has been widely discussed. The mere fact of an increase in the number of pupils and staff attending school poses an increased risk. The Independent Sage group has said the risk could be reduced by as much as 50% if wider reopening was delayed until the 15 June.
UNISON along with the other TUC education unions, outlined a set of tests to be met nationally and locally before it could be deemed safe for schools to open more widely. These tests have been set with a view to safely increasing pupil numbers. UNISON does not believe these tests have been met in full. Most specifically, UNISON does not believe that a robust test, track and isolate system is demonstrably in place either nationally or locally. Independent scientific advice concurs with UNISON’s view that wider opening on 1 June is not safe.
We believe that not attending work in the current circumstances is an appropriate step for us to take for the following reasons:
The dangers that are preventing us from attending work are the risk of contracting coronavirus and or spreading coronavirus to others.
The person(s) we are seeking to protect are ourselves, our families, our pupils, their families, our colleagues, their families and members of the public.
We believe that this danger is serious because coronavirus infection is potentially fatal and has already resulted in more than 37,000 deaths in the UK. In addition, some of those listed below have personal circumstances that mean the potential impact on them contracting Covid19 is even more dangerous.
We believe that, if we were to attend work, the danger would be imminent because we don’t believe that your plans for 1 June comply in full with the joint unions’ checklist – available here for primary schools and here for special schools. [delete checklist as appropriate]
In particular, the following measures have not been implemented or adequately implemented
[add here the elements where the school has not complied with the checklist or else attach a copy of your completed checklist indicating the areas of non-compliance]
In addition: –
Staff journeys to work involve using public transport, where they would be in very close proximity to many other people, some of whom may be infected and or carrying the virus.
Our risk of exposure to Covid19 cannot be reduced to an acceptable level.
5. We will be happy to return to the workplace when it is safe to do so, for example if the following measures have been put into place:
UNISON’s and the other TUC education unions’ tests have been met nationally and locally.
The joint union checklist has been complied with in full and all measures put in place.
In the meantime, we are all, of course, willing to carry out any of our duties, or other alternative duties at our current grades, that can reasonably be undertaken from home.
I would be grateful if you would arrange to meet with myself and other union reps to discuss these issues further.
Tuesday 28 April is Workers’ Memorial Day. UNISON and the TUC have called for a minute’s silence at 11am. In Camden, we are asking all of our members to join us in an online UNISON meeting from 10.50-11.05am on Tuesday so that we can observe the silence together. Paid time off for Council employees has been agreed. It’s more important than ever that we both remember the dead and fight for the living.
London Borough of Camden
We are writing to you on behalf of UNISON members in Camden Council – we represent social workers and care workers, school staff, library workers, housing workers and many more, most of whom are part of the fight against the spread of coronavirus and providing services and support to vulnerable members of our community. However, you are all in the front line of that fight, and we want to offer our solidarity and support to you. Many of our members have taken part in the ‘Clap for our Carers’ events the last two weeks, but we want and need to do more.
As a trade union branch, we are committed to the NHS and its invaluable workforce, even more so as we all face the threat of COVID-19 and the devastation it is causing to our community. We are particularly concerned to hear that many NHS staff in hospitals are still not receiving proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to both protect them and ultimately us from infection. There also appears to be a lack of clear guidance on its most effective use. In addition, all reports we hear are that there is still very little testing of NHS staff to see if they are able to work safely.
We believe that it is essential the government urgently increases the supply of PPE in hospitals and for social care, and ensure that staff are trained in safely using it. We also believe that mass testing, starting with all NHS staff from cleaner to consultant, is an urgent priority. We will be campaigning for this, but please let us know if there are other things we can raise for you.
Again, thank you for all that you do,
Liz Wheatley (Branch Secretary) and Phoebe Watkins (Branch Chair)
We held our Annual General meeting was on 4 March 2020 .The Secretary, Chair and Committee Members for 2020/21 were elected and matters arising from the Annual Report were discussed. A date was agreed for the next committee meeting, but this had to be cancelled due to the Corona Virus pandemic. At the end of the meeting one of the delegates read a paper she had written about women’s contribution to the development of the Trade Union movement.
Some Retired Members also attended the Branch AGM, which took place later on the same day.
If you want to get involved in Camden UNISON Retired Members group, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Can you help Camden UNISON? As we have been making sure your concerns have been addressed by your employers, some of you have realised how important it is to have a steward! So a number of members have said that they would like to become a steward in the last couple of weeks. Would you be able to do that too? It’s been really clear at the moment that having a local steward who can raise issues (and often manages to get them sorted too) and distribute information has made a real difference to members, so if you would like to do this, or want to find out what it involves, just email us at email@example.com and we’ll be in touch.
Camden UNISON Branch Meeting – on Zoom Thurs 2 April, 1pm We’re going to have a go at getting stuck into the modern world and have a meeting for Camden UNISON members using Zoom to discuss what’s happening at the moment, what we need to raise on your behalf, what the problems of working from home are and what we can do about them, and anything else relevant that you think of. The meeting is on Thursday 2 April (ie this Thurs) at 1pm. Details of how to join the meeting are in the email sent out to you on 31/03/20. Obviously, it’s our first time of doing this – hopefully it’ll work but bear with us if it doesn’t, we’ll work it out and have another go! It would also help if you have any specific questions that you email them in advance to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can try to make sure we have answers and group together the similar ones. It would be brilliant if you have your videos on so that we can see each other too!
London Borough of Camden
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