Paris: Huge numbers of French teachers went on strike on Thursday, with the biggest teachers’ union saying half of primary schools were closed as staff demand clarity from the government on coronavirus measures.
Coming as France’s presidential election campaign gets under way ahead of an April vote, the walkout is awkward for President Emmanuel Macron’s government which has prided itself on keeping schools open to ease pressure on parents through the pandemic.
While the education ministry said almost 40 percent of primary school teachers had walked out, top union Snuipp put the figure at 75 percent with one primary school in two closed for the day.
The strike "demonstrates the growing despair in schools", Snuipp said in a Tuesday statement announcing the strike. They complain that their members are unable to teach properly, are not adequately protected against coronavirus infection and frequently hear about changes to health precautions via the media rather than from higher-ups.
"The government announces things, but no one thinks about what it means for staff on the ground," Olivier Flipo, the head of a Paris school, told AFP this week. "They’re asking hellish things of us and it’s all going to the dogs".
With many pupils off sick and difficulty combining distance learning with in-person classes, "it’s not school that’s open, but a kind of ‘daycare’," Snuipp said. Some parents AFP spoke to on the street backed the strike.
"I understand the teachers and their position... classes are too big, they don’t get paid enough, their working conditions aren’t the best," said Akim Aouchiche outside a northeast Paris school.
"It’s their way of making themselves heard," said tax advisor Alexandra Stojek. "I understand what they’re asking for, it’s justified, they’re not doing this to bother us." "Until now, the public thought the government and President Emmanuel Macron had managed the crisis properly," Brice Teinturier of pollster Ipsos told AFP.
But if there is significant disruption from the strike, "that balance risks toppling," he added. Macron’s presidential election challengers have seized on the walkout, with far-left and Socialist candidates Jean-Luc Melenchon and Anne Hidalgo joining marchers in Paris.
The acting party chief of the far-right National Rally Jordan Bardella said the strike showed "the problem above all is Emmanuel Macron". Motivated by long queues for tests outside pharmacies, the government this week eased rules on Covid checks for students who have been exposed to an infected person, with Prime Minister Jean Castex announcing the changes on Monday’s evening news.
"We’ve listened and made changes," government spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters after a cabinet meeting Wednesday, acknowledging "weariness" among both parents and teachers. The shift up the chain of command appeared to be a reaction to the anger teachers direct at Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
But Blanquer has not backed down from tough talk, saying on television Tuesday that "you don’t go on strike against a virus".Meanwhile, the Philippine government on Thursday defended a controversial ban on unvaccinated people using public transport in the capital Manila where Omicron is fuelling a record surge in cases.
The rule, announced by the Department of Transportation this week and expected to take effect Monday, comes after President Rodrigo Duterte threatened to arrest people not vaccinated against Covid-19 who refused to stay at home.
Passengers will have to show proof of vaccination before boarding public buses, jeepneys, trains, boats or planes in Metro Manila where infections are soaring, causing widespread disruption for businesses and straining hospitals.
Exceptions will be made for unvaccinated people who have official permission to travel to buy food, seek medical treatment or get jabbed. Only around half the Philippine population are fully vaccinated, though the rate in the capital is much higher.
The Department of Transportation said the temporary "no vaccination, no ride" policy was designed to protect everyone and avoid an economically damaging shutdown of the public transport system during the latest spike.
"We believe that it is more anti-poor and anti-life if we will not impose interventions that will prevent loss of life due to non-vaccinations," it said. But rights groups, including Amnesty International, slammed the policy.
"The way out of this pandemic is not to impose unacceptably disproportionate restrictions and punishment on those who are unvaccinated," Butch Olano of Amnesty International Philippines said.
The Philippine Commission on Human Rights said earlier the travel restrictions "effectively restricts the exercise and enjoyment of fundamental rights." New cases hit a record 34,021 on Thursday, with just over three million people in the Philippines infected since the start of the pandemic.
The government loosened lockdowns in October last year, after coronavirus infections driven by the Delta variant peaked, in order to revive the battered economy. New infections dwindled to a few hundred daily just before Christmas, but ramped up again as families and friends got together for the holidays.
Meantime, Hungary said on Thursday it will offer a fourth coronavirus vaccine dose to citizens, after a consultation with a doctor amid a rapid rise in Covid-19 infection cases. Denmark is the first EU country to offer a fourth dose to citizens.
"Anyone can get a fourth coronavirus jab based on a consultation with a doctor," said Gergely Gulyas, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff. "The (government) decree about this will be published this week," Gulyas told a press briefing in Budapest.
Gulyas said the Omicron variant of the virus has begun to spread fast in the Central European EU member, with infection numbers in the so-called "fifth wave" expected to rise further in the coming weeks. However the government does not expect a rapid increase in hospitalisations and deaths, he added.
In Hungary, more than 40,000 people infected with coronavirus have died, making the 9.8-million population country one of the hardest hit EU member states, according to AFP data. On Thursday Hungary reported over 9,200 new cases, up from around 7,900 the day before according to official numbers.
Budapest ordered mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for all health workers last July, but the fourth jab will not be compulsory, even for health staff, said Gulyas. In a related development, Finland’s health authorities cut the recommended quarantine period for Covid-19 patients by up to half on Thursday, as the prime minister faced criticism for stepping back from virus policy as infections hit record levels.
The current 10-day quarantine period will in most cases be cut to five days, with people suffering symptoms advised to stay at home without seeking a laboratory test, public health body THL said.
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