Great Britain

Whistleblower accuses union of risking safety over suspected virus case after conference

The National Education Union has been accused by a whistleblower of risking the safety of its members by failing to inform them of a suspected case of coronavirus following a conference held just before the UK-wide lockdown.

It comes as the teachers’ body remains engaged in a fierce battle with government over Boris Johnson's plans to partially reopen primary schools at the beginning of June amid safety concerns of children and members.

In correspondence seen by The Independent, a former employee at the National Education Union (NEU) alleged that after a conference in Taunton – attended by around 30 delegates – only members of staff were informed that one attendee had reported symptoms of the virus, and were instructed to self-isolate.

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The whistleblower’s formal complaint, surrounding the event held between 14 and 15 March, and submitted shortly after they left the NEU under the organisation’s whistleblower disclosure policy, said that they and colleagues had requested the same instruction be issued to delegates and venue staff.

But, it added: “To the best of my knowledge and belief, advice was never issued to delegates or anyone connected with the venue. As I understand local management colleagues did not feel able to make the decision about whether to advise NEU members or the venue.”

“My understanding is that the decision was escalated through the management chain to the JGS [Joint General Secretary] who decided not to advise members or the venue. When I was informed of this decision I objected, pointing out the clear H&S [Health & Safety] risks. Despite my objections, I was instructed not to advise either members or the venue.”

The statement continued: “This instruction was especially concerning as NEU members in the WhatsApp group set up during the event were discussing the corona outbreak and at least one of the delegates disclosed their ‘high risk’ status.

“In addition, an NEU colleague who attended the event, albeit for a shorter duration than other colleagues, decided not to self-isolate. I was instructed not to advise colleagues in the regional office I was self-isolating to avoid ‘panic’ amongst regional colleagues. I believe this decision making endangered the health, safety and wellbeing of members, NEU staff and the public.”

In the findings of the NEU’s internal investigation, the union highlighted that advice from Public Health England or government by the 15 March had not instructed the public to self-isolate if they had come into contact with an individual with suspected Covid-19 symptoms.

However, it added that the decision not to write to delegates to inform them of the suspected case of coronavirus at the conference in mid-March was taken by the joint general secretary (JGS) and deputy general secretary (DGS).

Their decision – communicated to the national and regional organising teams two days later – stated: “This is a very difficult and unprecedented situation. We are concerned that to send comms to the attendees has the potential to cause unnecessary concern; we are not clear that the member concerned has coronavirus, and it is also possible that whatever she is suffering from (coronavirus or not) could have been picked up following the end of the conference. We have to consider the knock on impact such comms would cause. The JGS and DGS are all in agreement that the comms should not be sent.”

The individual responsible for probing the whistleblower’s allegations, added: “It is clear from my investigation that some managers were uneasy about this decision.”

However, the internal memo insisted the decision was made “in good faith” and said its advice to staff who attended the conference to self-isolate went beyond the Public Health England advice at the time, “which would not have required people to stay at home in these circumstances”.

The investigator concluded: “The JGS and DGS made a decision not to write to delegates who attended the conference on 14 or 15 March to alert them to the fact that a delegate was experiencing possible Covid 19 symptoms. There were different views across senior managers.

“I believe this to have been a finely balanced judgment. The decision that was made in good faith and was clearly in line with the Public Health England advice at the time.”

Asked for comment on the former employee’s allegations and the investigation into the claims, a spokesperson for the NEU told The Independent: “The complaint was made under our whistleblowing policy and fully investigated.

“The conclusion of the investigation was that the decisions were made in good faith and that all advice provided to staff was based on the most up to date Public Health England and government advice available at the time."

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