There is good news (with a caveat) on the rate of infection in the three areas I am monitoring this week. All have declined, with the overall suppressive impact of the wider social lockdown combining with mass vaccination to counteract the upward pressure from schools being open en masse.
While this is very welcome, the effect in all three places taken together is that infection rates are now only a little below the level they were when schools reopened. This is also true nationally.
The comparison with an extrapolation of the previous trend shows how this has missed a golden opportunity to bear down on the virus to near extinction point.
The next two weeks, with schools on Easter break, will reduce that upward pressure.
These are therefore the last weeks in which the reopening of schools is the main upward driver of infections, before the loosening of restrictions from April 6th begins to have an effect from about April 20th onwards – and the scheduled further loosening on April 12th kicks in from about April 28th.
The government calculation is that a wide enough vaccination roll out will reduce hospitalisations and death enough to be able to reopen on a far wider scale and get away with “living with the virus.”
The attempt to live with the virus in the absence of a high enough mass vaccination rate can be seen in Brazil; where Bolsonaro’s Bossa Nova is an unambiguous dance of death.
A reliance on mass vaccination as a single line of defence depends on the virus not evolving any variants that resist the vaccines. If it does, all countries that have not carried out a zero covid strategy will be back in the morass.
The wholesale reopening of schools on March 8th has already had an impact on the rate of viral transmission.
The National Education Union has a site that measures the rate of infection per 100,000 people in the areas around every school in the country. I have looked at the figures for the areas around three Primary schools with which I have a personal connection – the one I went to, one I taught in, and the one my children went to. I will be updating these on a weekly basis, every Thursday.
The impact of schools reopening can be seen clearly. No other significant measures have been taken to ease lockdown at this point, so this passes the “fair test” criteria for identifying the impact of a single variable (1).
You can check out what is happening in schools near you by going on the NEU covid map site. I would be surprised if the pattern were any different anywhere else.
In Islington, the infection rate is still declining, but the rate of decline is leveling off.
In Brent, the rate of infection has leveled off almost completely, from a previously sharp decline.
In Thurrock, there has been a very small increase, from a rate of decline that was previously similar to Brent’s.
This is quite a disturbing immediate impact. My presumption is that, other things being equal, these trends will continue between now and the Easter break.
The tragedy of this is that keeping schools shut until after the easter break could have got infections down to a point at which and effective Teast and Trace system would have been in a position to eliminate domestic infections.
Sailors on ships of the line about to be hit by a broadside would quietly intone grace. “For what we are about to receive, may the Lord make us truly grateful.” And so it is with the wholesale reopening of schools on Monday.
This is particularly the case given that for the last four weeks there has been a significantly larger percentage of positive cases in the 5-9 age group in England, for both boys and girls. (1) A similar trend has been seen in Israel and some sharp localised outbreaks in Italy have been centred on schools.
In this context, looking at what happened in practice the last time that schools were fully open will give us a guide to what is likely to happen.
In the Autumn term the Health And Safety Executive carried out spot checks and inspections on schools to make sure that COVID safety measures were being implemented effectively. As these measures “have not been substantially changed” since then, their findings are instructive. (2)
It should be stressed that none of this addresses the wider safety issues of whole school reopening – particularly the journeys in and out – which are only covered obliquely in the guidance – but will involve a sudden rush of millions of daily interactions; which are bound to boost the overall R rate. Nor does it cover the likely effect of encouraging a sense that “things are getting back to normal” as swarms of kids reappear in the streets in the mornings and afternoons – with a knock on effect of people beginning to relax and drop their guard.
HSE spot checks and inspections in primary and secondary schools from September to December 2020.
“HSE contacted 5000 schools in England and Wales to check they were following the relevant government guidelines. This followed similar spot checks carried out in August on schools in Scotland.”
“Following the initial calls, HSE found that around 80% of schools had a good understanding of the guidance and what it means to be COVID-secure.”
The HSE makes no judgement on how much safer schools could have been if the unions 10 point recovery plan had been taken up by the DFE (3) but the 80% figure here is a testament to the hard work and dedication of school managements and the serious input made by the Education unions, whose safety checklist was used by Reps all over the country to make sure that risk assessments and procedures were in place and schools made as safe as it was possible to do within the limitations of the investment the government was prepared to put in. Sometimes school Heads who had previously been institutionally hostile to their union groups found themselves working constructively with Reps because the union guidance was so sound and thorough. However, some did not. 80% is a good figure, but that still leaves one school in five with a poor grasp of safety measures which are a matter of life and death. With 24, 372 schools in England, extrapolating their sample and assuming all other factors remain equal, that would mean that roughly 4, 875 schools had a poor grasp of the guidance. One in five. That would be the sort of place where Heads tried to insist on physical parents evenings or open days taking place, or in person staff meetings, or people of the CEV list coming in to work, or Christmas performances that would presumably be protected by God.
“For those schools, HSE undertook over 1000 follow up site inspections to check the measures they had in place.” While these schools responded positively and “nearly all …had implemented COVID-secure measures in accordance with the relevant government guidelines” by the end of term, obviously, this only covered the schools they had initially contacted; so potentially the remaining 3,875 slipped through the net.
Just under ” 1% identified contraventions of health and safety requiring formal interventions and improvement.” 1% of 24,372 schools is about 240. Not many, but more than enough.
If there is a similar pattern in the next three weeks up to Easter and beyond into the Summer term, the sort of concerns Inspectors had “included social distancing in staff rooms and kitchen/canteens, cleaning regimes, and ventilation in school buildings.”
Ventilation was a particular issue, so the HSE has updated its guidance (4) which will be useful for anyone in a school where this has not been sorted.
Other problems included:
Generic risk assessments being used which sometimes lacked specific detail for the school.
Lack of effective systems for regular monitoring and review of risk assessments.
Fire doors being propped open to aid ventilation.
Inappropriate rooms being used for isolating suspected cases.
Arrangements for managing external visitors and/or contractors.
good ideas they noted included:
Promoting social distancing by issuing pupils with coloured lanyards to identify their bubble and to help avoid mixing between different groups.
Using brightly coloured floor markings in school playgrounds to encourage two metre social distancing between parents and pupils during drop-off and collection times.
One school used a year seven science project looking at handwashing and UV light as a means of promoting effective hand hygiene.
Producing video walkthroughs explaining COVID-secure arrangements for pupils and parents.
Use of classroom seating plans to help with self-isolation measures.
A click-and-collect app to purchase food from the canteen to reduce queues and avoid crowding.
Using video conferencing for staff meetings and phones in classrooms to speak to other staff to reduce face-to-face contact.
The role of unions in each workplace, making sure that these guidelines are upheld, has been essential in limiting the damage so far, and will be just as urgently needed in the next period, as the government once again skids over thin ice with its eyes shut and fingers crossed.
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.
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
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.
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.
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”.
If you look at figure 11 in the government’s latest coronavirus weekly surveillance report (1) which covers the sites for the spread of infectious respiratory disease going back to last autumn, you will notice several things.
1. Schools can be a very serious hub for disease transmission. Weeks 46 to 52 – the end of the autumn term – show schools as the main hub for transmitting last winter’s seasonal flu.
2. Schools were beginning to be a hub for the spread of Coronavirus at the end of March (week 12) until closing them for the overwhelming majority of pupils snuffed that out.
3. Now that more students are going back – even in relatively controlled conditions – schools are again becoming a hub for transmission. This is still quite small thankfully, but in week 23 (the week from June 1st – which was the first week that the government wanted students in Nursery, Reception and Years 1 and 6 to go back) there were 14 outbreaks in school settings. An outbreak is defined as two or more people getting the same illness which “appears to be linked to a particular setting”. Two points should be stressed. This is a real but small increase. It remains to be seen if this is sustained. But this is in the context of relatively few, even of the students the government had targeted for that week, actually going back. More went back in week 24 and yet more from this week (Week 25). The next report will indicate the impact of this.
4. The overall number of acute respiratory infections went UP for the first time since Week 15 in mid April, indicating that passing the peak is not the same as controlling the virus.