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

March 8th. A “Big Bang” for the Virus.

What a difference a week makes. From March 8th being the earliest possible time to reopen some schools, slowly, slowly, carefully, carefully, it seems to moved through being one of those target dates that become a matter of Ministerial virility to hit, all the way to being a “big bang” day on which all schools open at once. So, eight and a half million students and three quarters of a million educators all going in and out of workplaces every working day with “bubbles” 20 times the size allowed outside, then going home again. Rather a lot of vectors of transmission there. This is like watching a fly trying to get through a window. No matter how many times it bangs its head on the glass, it keeps trying to do the same thing. History repeating itself as tragic farce.

The media – doing their usual job of framing a discussion as though there isn’t one – have gone into overdrive hyping it up in that hopeful way that makes any criticism come across a curmudgeonly, likely to make children unhappy and ruin their lives and – in the case of the Daily Mail – targeting the NEU with a We Reveal Evil Teachers Plotting to Keep Children Safe story; as if demanding safe conditions to teach and learn in were an outrageous abuse by people who don’t know their place. The spirit they would prefer to see being that of the wounded trooper in the 11th Hussars at the end of Tony Richardson’s 1969 film Charge of the Light Brigade, who looks up from the carnage around him as Lord Cardigan rides slowly back up the valley and calls out in a cheery cockney way “Go again Sir?”

The line from the government is that the roll out of the vaccines – a fabulous job by the NHS, thankfully not outsourced to SERCO – will bring the level of infections down to a point that opening up again from March 8th is something they can get away with without overwhelming the Health Service. At the same time they are flying kites with “Great Barrington Declaration” written all over them – arguing that vaccinating the most vulnerable (once) makes it an acceptable risk to go for ” a big wave” of infections among everyone else. Back to “herd immunity”. Here are the problems with this.

If you look at the graph that shows infections in the UK, the pattern is very clear Fig 1.

Fig 1.

During the first lockdown, schools were closed to all but a very few pupils and we were only dealing with the original variant of the virus, which had not yet evolved so that it could spread more quickly. The peak for infections is quite low when you compare it to where we got to over the winter. The point at which infections began to rise again was as soon as the lockdown was lifted in mid summer. This was initially not very apparent because the numbers were low, and its slow growth helped by schools being shut for the summer holidays (despite “Eat out to help out”). Then we had September. Schools reopening evidently had a significant effect on transmission of the virus. Look at the date. Look at the rising curve. The failure to circuit break when absolute numbers were still low enough, then the half hearted lockdown in November followed by the attempt to open up for Xmas shopping can be tracked exactly on this graph. As can the rapid drop resulting from the current lockdown.

It is possible to argue – so people do it – that the rise in infections is down to an increased level of testing, but this is only true in what might be called a limited and specific way. The pattern of deaths follows the same curves; the slowdowns during lockdowns and the increases when they open up. Fig 2. the minimal downturn in November can partly be attributed to the government’s mulish insistence on keeping schools open. The current, much sharper, downturn is at least partly because schools are currently running with between 20-25% of students in. It would be sharper still if those numbers were down to the 3-10% that was the case in the Spring.

Fig 2

The notion that the sharp fall is attributable to the vaccine roll out is not based on facts. The government and media can be a bit allergic to these if they are inconvenient, but the ONS data on infection by age group shows that the rate of infection has dropped most sharply among the school age cohorts and barely at all among the over 70s; who are the age group that have primarily received their first jab. See the graphs here. https://twitter.com/chrisgiles_/status/1360219174476406788?s=27

So, the contribution of vaccinations to reducing infections has so far been marginal at best. Further, at the current rate of 2.5 million vaccinations a week, it will take until summer to give everyone over 16 one jab – and this will be even slower because everyone who has already had one will have to have their follow up within 12 weeks. So, a wide and rapid reopening on the hope that the vaccines alone will do the job is on a bit of a wing and a prayer.

It should also be stressed that no vaccine is currently liscenced for use on anyone aged under 16. So, children will have no vaccine protection at all. The call from Labour for all teachers to have one jab this week to provide some protection – ignored by the government (who presumably either think that it can be defeated with “British Pluck” or that teachers should be prepared to pay the final sacrifice in an undaunted way) also misses the point that you need TWO jabs to be fully vaccinated. The vaccines also – while offering significant protection against serious illness and death do not in themselves prevent infection and transmission.

Opening schools up wholesale on March 8th – even with all the safety measures that Heads and educators have struggled to put into place – is therefore another attempt at a triumph of the will over scientific reality (of a similar sort to the way they are trying to bluff their way through on climate breakdown) and will have comparable effects. It is likely to become the beginning of a super spreader event across the whole of society.

This continual in and out, stop and start has given the virus time to evolve. As it has evolved the variants that are more infectious are the ones that will survive best. Some of these, like the South African variant, have also become more deadly and resistant to the vaccines. It stands to reason that as the mass vaccinations are carried through, the only variants that survive will be those that resist them.

The decisive question therefore is why, given that this is common knowledge, the government does not adopt a strategy to eliminate the virus – as advocated by the Zero Covid coalition. Using the vaccines as an aid, but not relying solely on them. A key demand is that raised by the education unions throughout – for full disclosure of the scientific advice from SAGE.

Reading the comments made by the 50 strong Tory backbench – and profoundly misnamed – “Covid Recovery Group”, that although wholesale reopening of schools will make it impossible to keep the R rate below 1 that this is “worth it” – it is possible to conclude that this is just bluff and ignorance. The calls for “the scientists” to be taken out of political decision making – so that MPs like them don’t have to be troubled by awkward facts when they have to strike a posture – echoing the long muscular sporty traditions of the Public Schools so many of them went to, with their deep suspicion of intellectuals (dubiously continental and probably effete) and the boys comics they read when they were growing up – full of evil villains with big, sneaky brains and weedy little bodies. This – however – is simply a matter of style. These are not stupid people. But they are remarkably unconcerned about deaths among the sorts of people most likely to die – ethnic minorities, front line workers, the unproductive elderly, those with “underlying conditions” making them not fully work fit, and the worst off in general, who have made the “poor lifestyle choice” of living in overcrowded accommodation – if their lives are an obstacle to letting the economy rip and profits made. “Herd immunity to protect the economy and if that means some pensioners die, too bad” as Dominic Cummings put it. Daily Telegraph business editor Jeremy Warner put it like this last March. “Not to put too fine a point on it, from an entirely disinterested economic perspective, the COVID-19 might be mildly beneficial in the long term by disproportionately culling (sic) elderly dependents”.

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