A big bang opening of schools will prolong the Covid-19 crisis

By Charlie Wilson

“Forward” he cried from the rear…

There is no doubt that the mass reopening of schools in England next Monday will slow, probably stop, and possibly reverse the decline in infections, hospitalisations and deaths that has resulted from the current lockdown. No other country in the world, nor for that matter the UK, is risking this.

This has got nothing to do with vaccinations, because no children under 16 are scheduled to be vaccinated – ever – and very few teachers or TAs will have had even one jab, let alone two. Schools therefore could become a reservoir for the virus to evolve in.

This is why Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland are having a slower, phased return which will be monitored and reversed if infections start to rebound. This approach is supported by all nine Education unions. Labour’s failure to explicitly support this stance gave the government a green light to press on regardless with its reckless gamble.

The approach in the rest of the country at least puts the experience to the test. The English “big bang” approach seems to be an act of will, which they hope will work but are insouciant about if it doesn’t. The rhetoric about this being “the last lockdown” carries with it the strong implication that if the virus does rebound, we will just have to “take it on the chin” for the greater good of the economy.

That the people most likely to die – front line workers, ethnic minorities, those below the poverty line or living in overcrowded conditions – are those valued least and seen as personally expendable by the people in charge was given a clear illustration by the remarks of former OFSTED Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw; who told Emily Maitliss on Newsnight “You have to compare this to the medical emergency over the last year and the commitment on the part of medical professionals…they’ve gone the extra mile at great cost to themselves. and their families, their health – they have lost their lives in some cases. We need a similar commitment by the teaching profession over the next academic year”. 

This is the authentic voice of the British ruling class: “YOUR COURAGE, YOUR CHEERFULNESS AND YOUR RESOLUTION WILL BRING US VICTORY”. There is no greater service than to lay down your lives to get the exam results up. OFSTED Inspectors themselves, of course, have not been going into schools on health and safety grounds since last March.

This is doubly absurd because the current rate of infections is halving roughly every two weeks. This is both a danger and an opportunity. If sustained to and through the Easter holidays this could have infections down to few hundred – which could then be dealt with by a more targeted test and trace system. That is a genuine light at the end of the tunnel which the government is choosing to ignore, instead they going for the earliest possible reopening; which guarantees that the virus will survive. On Feb 28th the 7-day average for new infections was running at over 9,500. Next Monday it is therefore likely to be around 6 or 7,000. That’s still a lot of infections to throw up to 8 million daily journeys and interactions into; in and out of schools, often on public transport. As the poster says, “the virus thrives on human contact”.

There’s quite a lot of that in schools too, even with attempts at social distancing and stringent hygiene measures. Why interactions in classes of 30 within “bubbles” that can number in the hundreds are considered ok while outside school people can only meet one person from outside their household is a mystery that no one in government has explained.

Gavin Williamson, the hapless Secretary of State of Education, appointed to the role as Boris Johnson’s flak catcher presumably because Chris Grayling was unavailable – has stated instead that mask wearing will not be compulsory. Never one to miss a trick.

This means that – vaccines or no vaccines – this crisis is going to be prolonged. The Education unions have provided serious leadership on this issue and are organising for the safest possible conditions to mitigate the damage as much as possible.

The NEU has produced a  Schoolcovidmap.org.uk which enables you to check out what is happening with infections in the area around every school in the country. The NEU has also set up this public rally for 7pm on March 4th.

Keeping Schools and Communities Safe – NEU public rally

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