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U.K. teachers' union urges schools to close as country hits COVID-19 daily record

Millions told to stay at home in the U.K.
Millions told to stay at home in the U.K. 02:11

With daily coronavirus infections surging as a result of a new virus variant, the British government faced mounting pressure Saturday from teachers' unions to keep schools in England closed for at least another two weeks.

The government, which oversees schools in England, has already decided to keep all schools in London closed next week to try to stem new infections. Unions want the policy extended across the whole of England, expressing fears about the health of both teachers and children.

The U.K. on Saturday hit a daily record for new coronavirus infections — 57,725 — and looked set to soon overtake Italy once again to become the worst-hit country in Europe with nearly 75,000 COVID-19 deaths. The fear is that with rising infections, the number of deaths will also grow over the coming weeks.

Spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in London
Medics transport a patient from an ambulance to the Royal London Hospital as the spread of the coronavirus continues in London, Britain, January 2, 2021. HANNAH MCKAY / REUTERS

The U.K. has recorded its five highest daily new infection numbers over the past five days — all above 50,000 and double the number of only a few weeks ago.

After an emergency meeting on Saturday, the National Education Union, which represents over 450,000 education workers, called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative government to move learning online for at least two weeks. It also told members they have a legal right not to have to work in an "unsafe environment" of accelerating coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

"We are doing our job as a union by informing our members that they have a legal right to refuse to work in unsafe conditions which are a danger to their health and to the health of their school communities," said Kevin Courtney, the union's joint general secretary.

Another union representing teachers, the NASUWT, also called for an immediate nationwide move to remote education due to virus safety concerns. Its general secretary, Patrick Roach, said there's "genuine concern" that schools and colleges are not able to reopen safely at this time.

"The NASUWT will not hesitate to take appropriate action in order to protect members whose safety is put at risk as a result of the failure of employers or the government to ensure safe working conditions in schools and colleges," he said.

The government's own Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned at a December 22 meeting that schools needed to stay closed to bring down virus transmission rates.

The U.K. is struggling with a sharp spike in new cases as a result of a new virus variant that officials say could be up to 70% more infectious.

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