Unlike almost every other country in the world, Boris Johnson’s government wants to partially reopen schools in England on June 1st. The devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland will not follow suit because, like the education unions and the BMA, they do not think it would be safe to do so. Local authorities across England from Liverpool to Lambeth are also coming out against this move. The National Education Union has described this proposal as “reckless.”
The government cites the example of Denmark; which partially reopened schools on 15th April, without acknowledging that
- the impact of coronavirus on Denmark has been much lower. 93 deaths per million to date, compared to the UK’s 511. (1) That looks like this.
- There were a relatively manageable 170 new infections and 10 deaths in Denmark on the date schools began to reopen (2) partly because they had closed down earlier in the cycle, whereas in the UK the infection and death rates are still running very high – with 3560 new infections on 15 May and 384 deaths (3). On a per capita basis that works out at 28 new infections per million in Denmark and 54 per million in the UK; 1.66 deaths per million in Denmark and 5.86 per million in the UK.
- The assumption that this will reduce automatically to manageable levels in two weeks time does not take account the impact of the easing of the lockdown which has taken place in the last week.
- In fact, the infection rate (R) in Denmark initially went up from 0.6 to 0.9 in the two weeks following the reopening of schools, which could be taken as a warning. The other measures in place have since enabled that to reduce; so these would also have to be in place here to get a comparable result.
- In Denmark there was also complete openness about the science, precautionary projections of potential infection rates – assuming that children spread the virus at the same rate as adults, rather than resting reopening on a hope that they don’t – and an engagement with teachers unions. All of these are what the education unions are asking for in the UK too.
- The easing of the relatively weak lockdown in force in the UK – which reduced deaths by about half as compared with the continental normal of 60-70% -until last Sunday’s announcement from Boris Johnson that workers “should be encouraged” to return to work has already led to an increase in the infection rate from a range of 0.5 to 0.9 to a range of 0.7 to 1. (4) In a week! When the infection rate gets to 1 and beyond it begins to run out of control again, so the government is playing with fire. Reckless is the word. They say that if it does, they will retighten. Given their tendency to just cross their fingers and whistle and hope, we can’t leave it up to them. The unions and the BMA are right to resist.