The Government’s Approach to Schools – Suck it & Don’t See. #COVID19UK

Starting with a “big bang” schools reopening is a statement of intent that could not be clearer. The phrase “big bang” is a bit of a giveaway that seems to have been missed by a supine media. Explosions are rarely described as “cautious” or “careful”.

Paul Atkin. Brent North CLP

By Paul Atkin, Brent North CLP

Barely a week after the announcement of the “roadmap to recovery” we have government chief adviser Jonathan Van Tam sounding the alarm that people are getting lockdown demob happy and jumping the gun, threatening the current decline in cases; thereby revealing that to be a function of the lockdown measures, not the current level of vaccinations. What did they expect?

The government’s assertion that its covid recovery plan is “cautious” and guided more by “data than dates” is the opposite of the truth. Their road map is punctuated by targeted dates for loosening restrictions driven by economic considerations – which the business sectors concerned will now be working towards, assuming they weren’t lobbying for them in the first place – and not qualified with any comparably specific health data criteria.

Starting with a “big bang” schools reopening is a statement of intent that could not be clearer. The phrase “big bang” is a bit of a giveaway that seems to have been missed by a supine media. Explosions are rarely described as “cautious” or “careful”.

The scale of this should be clear in everyone’s heads. Up to 8 million students and educators going in and out of schools and colleges every week day. Thats one person in every eight in the whole population.

Students and teachers in school will be mixing in groups that would get them arrested if they did it anywhere else. For society, at the moment, it’s OK to meet with one person outside your household and we don’t get back to the “rule of 6” until the end of March. In a full fat school reopening you will be mixing with a class of thirty in a “bubble” of – sometimes- several hundred. This is either rash, hoping to get away with it – or calculated – easing us all back towards the herd immunity strategy by opening up on a grand scale in the first instance to the age groups least likely to die – in a reverse mirror image of the vaccination priorities. I suspect the latter.

The government’s argument that the vaccination programme puts a “shield” around society misses the point that no child under 16 is scheduled to be vaccinated at all; as the current vaccines have not been licenced for children. Very few of their teachers will have been vaccinated even once; so, no shield for them. The calculation seems to be that if the majority of the elderly have had one shot, the government has one shot at getting the economy moving again on as much as the old footing as possible as quickly as possible. The relatively rapid vaccination programme here has had a big economic pay off so far in the standing of the pound against currencies of other countries that have a lower vaccination rate; so, it seems that they are pushing the momentum beyond what it can sustain. This “shield” is what might be called a “limited and specific” one. The 30,000 additional deaths that are projected to fall by the wayside of the recovery roadmap are simply factored in as a price worth paying. 

There is no doubt that opening up schools in this way will at least significantly slow – and at worst reverse – the decline in cases , hospitalisations and deaths. 

Just before Boris Johnson announced that all schools would return en masse on 8th March, SAGE adviser John Edmunds said on the Andrew Marr show that “if we open schools now, the reproduction number is likely to go something close to one, potentially slightly above”. 

This was underlined later in the week by Welsh Education Minister Kirsty Williams who said that Wales’s more cautious partial and carefully monitored reopening was informed by modelling from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling Operational sub group; which assessed that sending all students back at once would raise the R number by between 10 and 50%. She concluded“The scientific advice is that we need to open up our schools gradually”. The same approach is being implemented in Scotland.

The Chief Medical Officer in the North of Ireland Michael McBride also stated “There is a significant risk at this point in time that if we move back too quickly, we will see a resurgence in cases.”

The position taken by all nine education unions that this “big bang” reopening is “reckless” is therefore not simply concerned with the very real risks to their members, but primarily with the risk to society as a whole. A wholehearted support from Labour for the joint unions position on wholesale reopening – not simply the conditions for it – may have been enough to push the government into line with the rest of the UK. That was desperately needed and not forthcoming.

The current lockdown is reducing infections by half roughly every two weeks.  Carrying on with it until the end of the Easter holidays could potentially cut the rate of new infections down to less than 500 a day – which could be manageable with a test and trace system if that were run by the Health Service and Local Authorities and SERCO shown the door. Eliminating domestic infections of the virus would be in our grasp at that point. That would be the optimal approach from a government serious about public health and securing a sound foundation for economic recovery. 

Of course, we don’t have one of those. 

The education unions are therefore now in the business of damage limitation. 

NEU Joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney made this assessment of the situation this week. “The best measure of cases in secondary school students is the ONS Coronavirus infection survey – because it is a random sample and finds asymptomatic cases.Cases at the end of last term were really high. 1 secondary child in every 36 had the virus. Not far off one per class.Since then, schools have remained closed and from January the rest of society been in a lockdown, and cases have fallen sharply.By 12 February 1 child in every 250 had the virus – the same as at 25 September last year.If cases carried on falling at the same rate as now by the time we get to March 8th cases could be 1 in 1000 – the same rate as on 7th Sept…When schools reopen, this will begin to increase – but at what rate?
There are competing factors: the current close down of the rest of society, mask wearing and testing may reduce the pressure for growth, the new variant may increase it. Whatever increase we see in March the Easter holiday will likely depress it again – with growth resuming thereafter.The current fall is very good – and we want to avoid the high rate we saw last term. Those rates meant that many children were sent home repeatedly and meant that cases rose amongst staff.So, we are in favour of caution, of phasing return to see what happens. And we are in favour of further mitigations being put in place – filter units where ventilation isn’t good enough, rotas where cases being to rise quickly etc.We also want to see an acceleration of the vaccination of teachers and support staff – given that they were amongst the highest rates of infection – probably because of the high rates of infection amongst students.”

  • There will be a rise in cases during March. This produced by the NEU enables you to check out what is happening in the area around every school in the country. 
  • The union has also called a public meeting to arm people to deal with the health issues being risked by this approach.
    NEU Health & Safety: Public Meeting Keeping Schools and Communities Safe
    . You can register online here. Speakers include:- Dr  Deepti Gurdasani, Senior Lecturer & Epidemiologist, QM University London – Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary NEU – Catherine Wilson, Parents United – Dominic Harrison, Director of Public Health, Blackburn – Janet Newsham Hazards Centre and Zero Covid – Dr Emma Runswick, BMA National Council Member (pc)- Chair: Ian Watkinson, NEU NEC Member,Chair of National Health & Safety Forum.

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