We are being told that it is a “moral imperative” (1) to get all our children back into school from September and that this is “non negotiable”. (2)
The problem for the government is that the Virus does not negotiate.
Sir Jeremy Farrar of the Wellcome Trust pointed out in Sunday’s Observer “The gradual uptick in cases has shown us we’ve now reached – if not already exceeded – the absolute limits of easing restrictions.” (My emphasis).
Chris Whitty of the official SAGE said the same. “We have probably reached the limits of what we can do.”
Although the death rate is steady at a low level, the number of new cases has began to rise. Death rates follow cases with a two to three week lag. Government gambles to try to reopen the economy and get people to “splash the cash” (3) that they don’t have and fear they are going to have even less of very soon- including the bizarre suggestion that people who can continue to work safely from home should travel in to work so they can buy some takeaway sandwiches – have “already exceeded the absolute limits” beyond which the infection rate goes up again.
The government has therefore paused further reopening, but not closed anything down except locally. That is more likely to slow the pace at which the infection rate increases than start driving it back down again. They do not have a Zero COVID strategy, with a single minded aim to eliminate the virus. This is a precondition for actually being to reopen the economy on any basis at all. Without it, whatever the measures and encouragement and boosterism, people will be voting with their feet and trying to stay as safe as they can.
We are therefore stuck in a push me pull you situation in which the government is trying to nudge people in two opposite directions at the same time. People are supposed to wear masks in shops. But many don’t. Just 3 out of 9 of us in my local Tescos a couple of days ago. And this is not enforced. All very lackadaisical.
The low point for new infections was on July 7th, when it was 352. By 10 August it had risen to 1 062. Almost tripled in a month. We are not in the same mess that the USA is in, but if you extrapolate these figures to the end of the month – the point at which schools are projected to reopen – we could be heading that way.
There has been an argument that school age children do not spread the virus in the same way as adults. There is no indication that this is the case for Secondary students and in the USA 97 000 cases were reported among the under 19s within two weeks of schools reopening in late July. (4)
The question therefore is – what concrete steps will the government take to make it safe to return to school? This is not yet a done deal. And the ball is in their court. At the moment they are talking about “trade offs” – which is a back handed admission that they expect the reopening of schools to have an impact on increasing infections, so they will need to close down other sectors to soak that up. If that is their intention, we need to see the modelling that it is based on – assuming of course that they have some and are not just going to make an amateurish punt with their fingers crossed.
Sir David King’s estimate is that reopening schools will add 0.5 to the R rate. With the average R rate running at nearly 1 across the country, unless there is a serious reduction in infections in the next three weeks and he commented “We need a proper test and trace system by September. Otherwise full school opening will put us right back. The Government has a month to deal with the level of infectivity as it stands now. Reopening schools should be a priority, but we believe we are nowhere near the point where it can be done safely…” (5)
The belated recognition that outsourcing track and trace to SERCO to run it through a national call centre with no local follow up, has not been effective – as many people are reluctant to pass on information, is an essential recognition of reality. So local authorities are now tasked with sending workers out to knock on doors and fill the gaps. But this needs to be functioning on the ground, the R rate needs to be coming back down and the health and safety checklist jointly agreed by the NEU, UNISON, GMB and UNITE needs to be met and fully functional in every single school if there is to be any chance of doing this safely.
And that does require some negotiation.
- Boris Johnson
- Nick Gibb
- Robert Jenrick