Impact of school reopening on Covid infection after three weeks.

The only way is up?


This week’s figures from the NEU Covid map for the local authority areas around my three exemplar primary schools show an acceleration of the trend that was already apparent barely a week into schools reopening. The rate of infection per 100,000 is increasing in all of them. With just under another week to go to the Easter break, we can expect this to continue; before the impact of that break would briefly take it down again if no other measures are taken to ease restrictions. 


If the government sticks with dates over data and relaxes further restrictions on Monday (29 March) we can expect two weeks or so in which infection rates overall will still be primarily affected by the schools being open. After which the impact will be combined.


None of these measures wll reduce infection rates. Stay as we are and they will rise. Open up further and they will rise more quickly.


The government is gambling that the vaccine roll out will sufficiently reduce hospitalisations and deaths that the increase in infections can be ridden out; and Chris Whitty has argued this week that a zero covid policy is impossible, but that we should be aiming to keep it as low as possible. 


There are a number of problems with this.

  1. A lot of serious scientists disagree with Prof Whitty on zero covid, as you can see here.
  2. The difficulty of keepng track of covid is very different problem when infections have been brought down to a very low level. While it can be assumed that there will be undetected cases out there – if there is an efficient test and trace system every newly identified case can be back tracked to prior contacts, who can then be tested and isolated as required. This has worked very effectively in South Korea, where they have had fewer infectyions than we have had deaths. Had schools been kept mostly shut until the end of the Easter holidays and all the other restrictions kept on, we’d have been at a low enough level to keep a lid on things. A few hundred a day. Having opened up – we won’t be. 
  3. So Whitty’s fatalism gives the government carte blanche and becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. 

The wider consequences of a world in which the virus is a permanent feature are incompatible with going “back to normal” – or status quo ante virus – let alone building back better. If we accept that the genie is out of the bottle and can’t be got back in for large parts of the world, including us, a number of things follow. 

  1. Those parts of the world that have suppressed it – and don’t want to let it back in – will have continued border controls/quarantine indefinitely. They will also be able to have a more social society than those that have not and their economies will also grow relatively strongly. At present that is a large minority of the world, with China by far the largest component, but also includes Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand.
  2. Those countries trying to “live with” the virus will be in a constant state of evolutionary struggle with it, as it mutates; necessarily becoming more infectious and vaccine resistant as it does. The bottom-line strategy of taking restrictive measures to stop health services being overwhelmed combined with a permanent cycle of mass innoculations is therefore a permanent prospect, as is a built in and residual popular caution – which will feed in to social behaviour and limit cultural and economic possibilities. An alternative scenario – that is not mutually exclusive – is that the Bulldog Drummond tendency gets its way and we let it all hang out in a last days in Nazi Berlin hedonistic frenzy (roaring twenties) in which a load of people die all at once and we go with the survival of the fittest. Either way, there is no quick fix and the next pandemic could be on us before we’ve cleaned up this one – just as the rate of natural disasters caused by climate breakdown will accelerate and intensify and overlap from here on.
  3. Viruses can be eliminated. Polio. Smallpox. Therefore, should be. Like climate change, the consequences of not dealing with it are far worse than doing so. One strategy for so doing was set out very well by Devi Shridar in her recent New Statesman article
  1. The economic motivation for what the government is doing is well developed here. The popular view of “the economy” is that the ruling class operates it in a Benthamite spirit, primarily concerned with use values and the “greatest happiness of the greatest number”. In practice everything is subordinated to profit; and, in this crisis, some sectors have done spectacularly badly – hospitality, culture, mass tourism, others have done very well, online retail, pensions insurance; and the balance of forces between the classes has definitely shifted the wrong way and the stock market has boomed.  They are not letting a good crisis go to waste.
  1. Labour’s policy is a classic exercise in what Gramsci would have called corporate politics. Manoeuvring within the framework of your opponent. It helps consolidate the government’s position – because when they do become critical it comes across as churlish. Starmer seems less interested in winning than being a safe opposition on the off chance of being allowed into office as the fall-back option for the powers that be.

Schools + Big Bang = Bad Move!

By late Monday afternoon we will know just how lucky Boris Johnson feels.

We will also know whether Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty – reported to be deeply concerned about a rush to open schools wholesale on March 8th – is going to play the role of a Fauci, by refusing to be window dressing for a move he knows will cost lives, or that of a Birx, grimacing through whatever “form of words” Downing Street comes up with to massage its intent.

The government – not for the first time – is sending contradictory signals. The Education Unions, all of them, are not. They describe the prospect of schools being open to all students from March 8th as “reckless”. (1)

While the government is saying that it will only publish the Scientific advice after the event – an indication that they are not at all sure that it supports a big bang – what we do know appears not to.

As a result of the lockdown, infections are coming down quite fast. Halving every 15 days. With the infections on 18 Feb running at just over 12,000 – other things being equal – they would still be at just under 6,000 a day on March 8th; well above where they were in September last year the last time this was tried (1,295 on September 1st). And we should all recall what happened then. This time round, we are looking at a daily infection rate five times worse than then with a virus that is considered up to 70% more contagious.

Not likely to go better than September is it?

At the current rate of decline, the projection is that infection rates would take until the Easter holidays to be down to 1000 a day. Add the two weeks off for Easter with all other restrictions in place and we could be down to 250 a day by mid April. That is a level at which the virus could be hounded to domestic extinction with a proper test and trade system, run through the Health Service and Local Authorities not SERCO.

The government, instead, wants to rely on vaccines and a lot of hope – and probably some contradictory forms of words as the big bang blows up in our faces. Caution with freedom. Recklessness with responsibility. What more can you expect from us? The buck stops with you. If they do go for this, it will be seen as a green light by the take it on the chin brigade, who want the economy re-opened regardless of the casualties. In the words of Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle Price “The moment you open schools up then there no excuse for not opening up the rest of the economy”.

While there has been a real but marginal impact of vaccinations on infections among the over 80s, this has no bearing at all on schools. No children will be vaccinated. No vaccine has been licensed for the under 16s. Very few teachers or TAs will have had even one injection. At the moment, the age groups which has had the slowest trajectory of decline in infections are young adults (18-24) and primary school age children (5-12). “Researchers say that this may be because a significant proportion of primary pupils have still been in classrooms during lockdown”. (2) The current level of attendance in Primary is around 20-25%. Bump this back up to the pre pandemic norm of 95% and how hard is it to predict whats going to happen?

The impact of a partial reopening – on the lines being tried in Scotland from Monday – is likely to be damaging enough, with primary schools becoming a permanent viral reservoir. Their experience must be watched closely to see what happens, though it must be noted that Scotland has an infection rate that is lower than that in England (1:180 compared to 1:115) and the two weeks between Monday and March 8th is a short period to provide anything definitive about how quickly the virus rebounds. However, opening all schools for all students and all educators is bound to slow down the rate of infection decline significantly and, in the worst case, may even reverse it.

The Education unions, parents, independent SAGE and others are arguing for damage limitation. That if there is to be a partial widening of access to schools from March 8th, this should be on a limited basis and the results studied before considering wholesale reopening. That appears to be the plan in Wales, with Early Years and Infants back next week but a projected fuller opening for the rest of Primary and some Secondary year groups contingent on a continuing improvement in infection reduction. A government concerned with public health would listen to them. Labour should back them – and call for the Zero Covid strategy that is within our grasp, but the Tories fail to sieze

1 https://neu.org.uk/press-releases/joint-statement-wider-opening-schools-england

2 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/feb/19/whitty-at-odds-with-johnson-over-big-bang-reopening-of-schools-in-england