The National Education Union (NEU) is concerned about the effect of Covid-19 on Black[1] people and our members, pupils, parents and communities. The NEU has issued general advice on ensuring safety for staff at greater risk

The substantial disparities facing Black people, even when taking into account matters of age, sex, other health conditions and the impact of living in more deprived areas, are highlighted in reports from Public Health England and the Office for National Statistics

The disproportionate impact on Black people from Covid-19 is not fully understood, but it is known that occupational patterns, poverty rates and health inequalities which in the view of the NEU, arise from structural racism, are contributory factors. Further, Black staff are often less able to raise concerns within workplaces, because of the stereotypes and prejudice they face. 

The DfE has confirmed to the NEU that “schools should be especially sensitive” to the needs and concerns of Black staff, parents and pupils.  This advice should be followed in all schools and colleges.

In summary:

  • Black members of staff have a heightened risk of serious injury or death from Covid-19 infection.
  • Black children and young adults may not have a similarly heightened risk, but they live in homes and within communities that do and may infect the more vulnerable members in their communities (e.g. older relatives).

This advice for NEU Black members is intended to help ensure that the individual risks of working in school to you as a Black person are properly assessed.  It can also be used by NEU reps who want to ensure that risk assessments have been conducted properly.

Please read this in conjunction with the NEU’s wider advice on ensuring safety for staff at greater risk which includes a risk reduction framework; and these companion NEU FAQs for Black members .

Legal obligations to staff

Your employer, whether a local authority, trust or governing body, has the legal duty under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 to ensure that a suitable and sufficient risk assessment is undertaken in relation to the risks of operating during the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Staff availability needs to be considered as part of the employer’s overall risk assessment with regard to whether the school can open safely.

All risk assessments must be tailored to each unique workplace. Given the known greater risks of Covid-19 to specific groups, especially older workers and Black workers, the risk assessment must also consider any further increased risk to the staff member due to those factors. It is also vital risk assessments consider and mitigate against risks to pupil and staff mental well-being.

Governing bodies and local authorities also have a public sector equality duty to eliminate discrimination and avoid policies and practices which have a disproportionate adverse impact on Black students and staff.  Employers' risk assessments must therefore be carried out in ways which avoid such an impact on Black staff.

To support your negotiating around risk assessments, it is essential to read the NEU’s Ensuring Safety for Staff at Greater Risk  which includes a risk reduction framework. 

Please also use the NEU checklists for primarysecondary and special schools. The risks to school communities vary based on local factors such as the rate of infection.   NEU members need to use the NEU checklists to negotiate collectively with their employer about safety for their particular school. 

It is important to maintain the necessary distinction between the role of the employer and that of the union. As a union rep or safety rep it is not your role to undertake a risk assessment for your school or college, nor should you be ‘signing off’ a risk assessment – that remains the employer’s responsibility. 

Advice on the risk to Black workers

Risks are compounded where individuals are at higher risk for a combination of reasons. The degree to which you are individually at risk is affected most significantly by your underlying health; but it is also affected very significantly by your age and also by other circumstances.

The recent PHE report shows the differentials according to ethnic group. People of Bangladeshi ethnicity have around twice the risk of death when compared to people of White British ethnicity. People of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity have between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British.

Given the known greater risks of Covid-19 to Black workers, the risk assessment must therefore consider the additional level of risk, beyond that deriving from their personal health circumstances, facing Black staff and those with whom they live or care for.

Ethnicity must, therefore, form part of every employer's risk assessments with regards to individual staff.  As noted above, risk will be compounded where individuals are also at higher risk for other reasons, with age, sex and underlying health conditions also being very significant factors.

Advice on considering your own safety and level of risk

Black employees will want to consider whether their health and personal circumstances put them at particular risk and how the above may mean this risk is increased further.  In doing so, you should refer to the NEU guidance ensuring safety for staff at greater risk and its guidance on clinical vulnerability or extreme clinical vulnerability, age and other factors where they are also relevant to you. You may also feel anxious about other members of your household who also face higher risks related to their ethnicity or age, or about the impact this is having on your mental health. 

See Appendix 1(below) for some potential risk factors for you and your employer to consider. The NEU FAQs for Black members also contain useful links to support you.

The NEU advises you to inform your employer if you do have concerns about working in school or college using the NEU’s template letter. Providing accurate information about your health and other circumstances will help ensure that your employer conducts an accurate risk assessment.

If you need to contact your employer to raise concerns about working at school due to these issues, you could contact your GP first to discuss risk factors and possible protective measures, in order to help you to explain matters to your employer.  

If you are unhappy with your employer’s response, you should contact your GP to discuss that response and seek further evidence to support you in seeking to reach agreement.  Contact your NEU rep or NEU local officers for further advice if you feel unclear about what is reasonable to say to your employer or if you are being asked to work at school when you do not feel safe to do so.

If worries about Covid-19 or other issues are making you feel anxious, you can also read this NEU advice on seeking support with mental health and well-being and the NEU FAQs for Black members.

Advice on medical vulnerability

The Government’s position continues to be that everyone who can work at home should do so and that vulnerable people must be protected, whether they are at home or at work.  The NEU does not think that requiring staff who are clinically vulnerable or otherwise at higher risk to work in school or travel on public transport offers such protection.

The NEU is absolutely firm in its advice that staff who are in clinically vulnerable groups, or who live with or care for household members who are themselves in clinically vulnerable groups, should not be required to return to the workplace and should instead be allowed to work at home.  

Similarly, staff who are at significantly greater risk due to other personal circumstances or combination of circumstances should not be required to return to the workplace and should instead be allowed to work at home. The NEU expects your employer to accept your concerns.   

When employees are working at home, they should in all cases be in receipt of full pay with no question of this time being treated as a period of unpaid leave.

Support from the NEU 

Please ensure that you tell your NEU workplace rep whether or not you have sent a letter to the head – they will need this information to best represent the members with the head.  If there is no rep in your school, please volunteer.

Contact details for the NEU rep at your school or college are on your NEU membership card. If there is not a rep at your school then contact your branch/district secretary here, or else contact the NEU Employment AdviceLine

To protect higher risk staff, all NEU reps have been asked to:

  • Share our detailed guidance for higher risk staff with all members so they can assess their relevant health and personal circumstances.
  • Use this guidance and FAQs to support Black members. 
  • Ask members to use this template letter to indicate to their line manager if they believe they are at higher risk and should work from home, providing supporting evidence from their GP where possible. Collate member responses, insist that staff members who are or live with someone who is clinically vulnerable can work from home, and insist that staff members, including Black staff, who consider themselves at higher risk, can also work from home.
  • Use this model letter, counter-signed by all members to collectively raise these concerns about protecting vulnerable and higher risk staff with your head teacher.

Make sure you have all your information and evidence to hand before you contact your employer. Providing this information will help your employer assess the next steps.

Please note that government and scientific knowledge and advice is changing constantly.  This NEU guidance will be updated as necessary to reflect this.

Appendix 1 

Key points to consider 

It is not possible to say all Black staff should work from home as so many variables may affect that position. However, collaborative and informed individual risk assessments are critical to accurately assessing risk to individual Black staff members. Ultimately, the risk assessment should lead to a decision which you feel comfortable. 

You and your employer should consider risk factors including:

  • Are you from a Black ethnic group?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you male?
  • Are you defined as clinically vulnerable or clinically extremely vulnerable? (see below)
  • Do you have any medical condition or combination of conditions which you think mean that you should be so defined?
  • Do you live with or care for anyone who is so defined?
  • Do you live in a multi-generational household, in particular one including older people?
  • Do you live or work in an area which is considered a deprived area?
  • Do you live or work in an area which has a high prevalence of infection?
  • Do you have to use public transport to get to and from work?
  • Are you pregnant?
  • Are you disabled?

The more yes answers you have, the more the risk to you is increased.  You need to gather all the evidence and then arrange to discuss your risk with your school management. 

It may be that there can be measures which will help mitigate against the risk, or you may need to work from home. The following table summarises the evidence for Black people and other influential factors that may increase the risk to Black people and the position on health conditions that we have so far. 

Ethnicity

Black staff: The greater risk of Black people to Covid-19 is established by ONS and PHE data. Reasons for this are still being investigated. Black staff are at greater risk overall; people of Bangladeshi ethnicity have around twice the risk of death when compared to people of White British ethnicity, while people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity have between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British.  For individuals the risk depends on a combination of factors including ethnicity and also age, health conditions etc.

Age

The risk associated with age increases exponentially. Someone in their fifties is at three times the risk of someone in their forties, but someone in their seventies is at 15 times the risk of a forty-something. Those 80 or older, when compared with those under 40, were seventy times more likely to die.  

Sex

Working age males diagnosed with COVID-19 were twice as likely to die as females. Comparing to previous years, all-cause mortality was almost 4 times higher than expected among Black males for this period, almost 3 times higher in Asian males and almost 2 times higher in White males. Among females, deaths were almost 3 times higher in this period in Black, Mixed and Other females, and 2.4 times higher in Asian females compared with 1.6 times in White females. 

Health conditions

The Government defines people with certain very serious underlying health conditions as clinically extremely vulnerable (the “shielded” category).  The list of conditions is not exhaustive. People with sickle cell and Thalassaemia fall into this category.

The Government defines people with certain other conditions as clinically vulnerable.  Again the list of conditions is not exhaustive. 

Area rates of infection

Information on this can be found here

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[1]  Black is used by the NEU in a political context to encompass all members who self-identify as Black, Asian and any other minority ethnic groups who do not identify themselves as white.