Claims by a Conservative MP that teachers broke lockdown rules with after-work drinks in school staff rooms have been branded “insulting” and “offensive”.
Michael Fabricant is facing demands to retract claims made while defending the prime minister Boris Johnson, who was fined this week for attending a party in Downing Street during lockdown.
Johnson, along with his wife Carrie Johnson and the chancellor Rishi Sunak were revealed yesterday to be among around 50 people handed fixed penalty notices for lockdown breaches.
But Fabricant told the BBC yesterday that Johnson did not think he was breaking the law.
“I think that at the time he thought, just like many teachers and nurses who after a very, very long shift would tend to go back to the staff room and have a quiet drink – which is more or less what he has done.”
The MP for Lichfield has subsequently clarified that his comments were based on testimony from “a teacher and two nurses”.
Comments caused ‘hurt and anger’
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, has written to education secretary Nadhim Zahawi, calling Fabricant’s claims “wholly inaccurate and deeply insulting to the teaching profession”.
“I cannot overstate the hurt and anger these comments have caused,” he said, adding that the “reality” in schools saw most teachers restricted to bubbles, unable to interact with other staff. Many had to “eat lunch alone in their classrooms”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL leaders’ union, said he would be writing to Fabricant to formally complain about his “appalling slur”, which he said was “both factually incorrect and insulting”.
“Unlike what seems to be the case in Downing Street, alcohol is not a feature of the working day in schools, and teachers do not drink in staff rooms.”
He said education workers were “dismayed by the behaviour of the prime minister and others in Downing Street in breaking their own rules because it is a clear case of double standards”.
“For Mr Fabricant to now erroneously suggest that teachers and nurses were also breaking lockdown rules adds insult to injury.”
‘Teachers will be furious’
The comments come at a time when schools are still grappling with widespread Covid disruption. Schools Week revealed last week that year 11 pupils missed one in ten lessons last month, with the start of exams just weeks away.
Around 9 per cent of teachers were absent in late March, according to Department for Education figures.
Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said teachers would be “furious at this attempt to tar them with the same brush as law breakers in Downing Street”.
“Michael Fabricant’s attempt to defend the indefensible actions of the prime minister and chancellor are as insulting as they are offensive.”
Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, said Fabricant’s comments were “naive and wrong”, and showed a “complete lack of knowledge about our wonderful profession and should be retracted”.
She said teachers had followed the rules “to the letter” and did “everything that was expected of them and more”.
“Our teachers showed calm professionalism amidst impossible circumstances. Every single day teachers carried a huge amount of anxiety about the potential risk to their own health and that of their families.
“Despite all of that, they did not break the rules. Even when the guidance was unclear they did not break the rules. Suggesting otherwise is naïve and wrong.”
Fabricant’s comments have also prompted criticism in the health sector.
The Royal College of Nursing said it was “utterly demoralising – and factually incorrect – to hear you suggest that our diligent, safety critical profession can reasonably be compared to any elected official breaking the law, at any time”.
Fabricant must retract ‘slur’ on teachers
Whiteman said Fabricant’s comments had done “enormous damage and are entirely unjustified”, and called on Zahawi to “set the record straight publicly and to address what is frankly a slur on the teaching profession”
Whiteman said he had also written to Fabricant “asking him to substantiate these claims or to retract them immediately”.
In a statement issued today, Fabricant said he had been told by “a teacher and two nurses” that they had “some sympathy with the prime minister as after an exhausting day at work they, too, had had a drink with their work mates”.
“They felt it safe as they had not mixed with others and, frankly, I cannot blame them. Those nurses had been working hard for many hours trying to save lives and their quick drink with close work mates could not have spread the disease.
“I am sure most other nurses and teachers stuck to the letter of the law as did I.”