Teachers’ leaders have condemned comments from an MP suggesting that they had a “quiet drink” in the staffroom after a long day, as he defended the Prime Minister over partygate.
On Tuesday, Lichfield MP Michael Fabricant told BBC News that he did not think Prime Minister Boris Johnson knew that he was breaking the law when he attended a gathering in June 2020 to celebrate his 56th birthday.
Mr Johnson has subsequently paid a fine for attending the gathering in violation of coronavirus rules.
“I don’t think at any time he thought he was breaking the law… he thought just like many teachers and nurses who after a very long shift would go back to the staff room and have a quiet drink,” Mr Fabricant said.
In a letter to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi on Wednesday, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the NAHT school leaders’ union, said that his suggestion was “wholly inaccurate and deeply insulting” to teachers as a profession.
“I cannot overstate the hurt and anger these comments have caused,” he added.
He said that during the pandemic, headteachers had followed Government guidance “meticulously” and that Mr Zahawi himself had praised them for doing so.
He said that most teachers had kept to small bubbles during the pandemic and that many had eaten lunch alone in their classrooms.
Mr Whiteman said that during the pandemic, headteachers and other school staff had worked “tirelessly” implementing “ever-changing” Government guidance.
“They supported the most vulnerable, ensured that children were fed and effectively reinvented how education was delivered in a matter of weeks.
“The demands placed on them were enormous, as you know,” he said.
He said the comments by Mr Fabricant had done “enormous damage” and were “entirely unjustified”.
Mr Whiteman described the comments as a “slur on the teaching profession”.
He said he had also written to Mr Fabricant directly asking him to substantiate or retract them at once.
In his letter, Mr Whiteman said that the MP’s suggestion was “at best naive”.
“We are not aware of any police investigations or formal allegations that the rules were broken in schools,” he added.
“As such, we believe your comments to be entirely inappropriate and damaging to a committed profession of frontline public servants.”
He said that there was “no legitimate or reasonable excuse for making such baseless comments”.
Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “Michael Fabricant’s attempt to defend the indefensible actions of the Prime Minister and Chancellor are as insulting as they are offensive.”
She said that NEU members had “gone above and beyond during the pandemic to keep the education system running and will be furious at this attempt to tar them with the same brush as law breakers in Downing Street”.
Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, said that Mr Fabricant’s comments were “naive and wrong”.
She added that teachers had shown “calm professionalism” in “impossible circumstances”, and that teachers had carried a “huge amount of anxiety” about the potential risk working carried for their own health or 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 naive and wrong.”
Tory MP Simon Hoare condemned Mr Fabricant’s comments on social media.
In response to accounts from nurses and their families that they tried to keep up their spirits by chalking up the number of survivors on ward noticeboards and never had a “quiet drink”, he said: “I agree. Those key workers were doing their jobs eg caring for the sick and educating our children.”
“I’ve seen no evidence of ‘after shift party time’. They were all too knackered.
“Whataboutery is bad enough but unsubstantiated offensive whataboutery can go hang,” he added.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Mr Fabricant’s remark is 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.
He said that during the pandemic, staff rooms were closed to avoid mixing and coronavirus transmission.
“Like the rest of the public, education staff are 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,” he added.
Mr Fabricant said: “Over the last year, a teacher and two nurses have told me 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.
“Of course, I fully understand the anger of people who obeyed the rules, couldn’t visit relatives, and missed weddings and funerals.
“I was in lockdown in Lichfield all the time so I know exactly how they feel.
“But Boris Johnson’s mother died during lockdown too and he himself ended up in intensive care so he will also understand their anger.”