What happened to ‘following the science’ on schools?

By Karam Bales

I imagine Downing Street this week is like a scene from a disaster film. Red lights flashing across the government dashboard, sirens blaring in the distance, our nation’s leaders stand frozen with indecision as they try to work out which course of action will play best in opinion polls while their own scientific advisors pleading for action go unnoticed in the corner. We are past the spring peak, hospitalisations have hit new heights and the curve is still climbing as a new strain of Covid rips through communities.

The government had clung to evidence collected early in the pandemic when the majority of the world’s schools were in lockdown and our own attendance was around 5% to justify having one of the laxest approaches in the world in regard to safety measures in schools. They claimed students are unlikely to be infected, they don’t transmit the virus, and that our schools can be Covid-secure with no social distancing, no masks inside the classroom and poor ventilation. The Department for Education (DfE) guidance still doesn’t properly address the fact aerosol transmission is the main cause of infection.

Over the summer, high quality studies with larger data sets than the earlier studies were published by respected academics and organisations from around the world. Of particular note are the South Korean genomic contact tracing, Princeton’s India study, and several studies of the disastrous school reopening in Israel that led to their second wave being considerably higher than the first which had been impressively controlled.

SAGE said schools should be included in a two week circuit breaker. This was ignored and cases grew exponentially. SAGE said schools should be included in the November lockdown and this too was ignored. During the November lockdown, while infections in all other age groups fell by 30%, infections in school aged students rose by 17%. Sceptics cited the fact that infections had started to fall before lockdown as a sign that lockdowns don’t work, but epidemiology modellers I’ve worked with explain this fall before lockdown corresponded with half-term, once incubation lag was taken into account.

Independent SAGE had a live broadcast on schools where they released an “Urgent Report for Safer Schools” produced with the EAGLE education research group, setting out a plan for blended learning and improved measures based on the latest science and international comparisons. It explained how simple changes could cut transmission in schools, protecting communities, and reduce disruption to learning. The government and swathes of the media chose to ignore this, along with the growing body of evidence that schools are major drivers of transmission, preferring to cite the same few early studies that supported the DfE’s position. Cases continued to rise exponentially. It’s shocking the DfE are still telling schools that masks should not be worn in schools. Those schools that stick slavishly to the government line are even preventing voluntary mask use by students with CEV (clinically extremely vulnerable) parents in classrooms.

This changed a couple of weeks ago when Matt Hancock stated, “School age students are driving transmission” in a national press conference as he declared the reason areas of London and the South East would be entering the newly created Tier 4. Later that week they announced the new strain was becoming dominant in these areas. Some experts have theorised that unchecked transmission in schools provided the opportunity for the new strain to develop, or at least provided it with an ample supply of unprotected hosts to multiply and then spread into our community.

The Office for National Statistics positivity survey shows secondary age students are the most infected group, followed by primary school age students. The week before Christmas, the growth rate was still exponential. Towards the end of term the education system was crumbling, in one week over 800,000 students were isolating, whole year groups were onto their second or even third period of isolation, partial closures were frequent and there were even whole school closures because we were simply running out of staff. But when schools decided they wanted to close a few days early, the DfE threatened them with court action.

So here we are a week away from the start of term, the NHS struggling with the highest daily number of Covid hospitalisations of all time, and with over 40,000 new infections today, we haven’t reached the peak yet. SAGE told the government repeatedly it might not be possible to get RO below 1 without closing schools. If schools return to the same conditions as last term, then we will return to the same exponential rates. How will the NHS cope?

There will also be preventable deaths. Matt Hancock himself said infections in school age students spread into the over 65s, and we are only just scratching the surface of the potential harms of long Covid that is being found in children and has left colleagues of mine in education unable to work seven months after infection. While groups talk of the impact of closing schools on the most disadvantaged, which is a concern of mine and needs longer term planning and investment to address, we know the cost of Covid falls more heavily on the same groups disproportionately disadvantaged by inequality and social injustice.

Although behind the scenes there are disagreements regarding how to tackle transmission in schools the government narrative has remained the same since their flurry of announcements in the final days of term. All students must be back full time by 11th January, although the 18th is being floated as a possible compromise. This, they say, is to give us time to implement the DfE’s latest magic bullet, mass testing.

My initial thoughts found the logistics alone staggering, when you consider it’s taken seven months and over £22 billion to get national testing capacity up to 400,000 – although the actual number of people tested is considerably lower. Yet they expect us to create a parallel testing regime which can manage to test 500,000 to one million people in a few weeks with no upfront funding. This will probably require hiring tens of thousands of staff who also need training as medical practitioners. Whoever came up with the idea also believes schools are like the Tardis with spare room to house testing bays and waiting rooms for hundreds of students.

However this isn’t the biggest issue with mass testing in schools. We will be using lateral flow devices, and, worryingly, these will be used as a replacement for isolations in schools. They have a failure rate of around 50% when not conducted by an experienced practitioner. The DfE expects students to test themselves under supervision, so we’re basically relying on a coin flip on every asymptomatic case to prevent transmission from individuals who would previously have been automatically isolating.

The government has repeatedly said education is a priority. Yet despite failing to make the same investments to reduce transmission that many other comparable countries have, they have chosen a policy which prioritises reducing isolations rather than cutting transmission. It’s a PR exercise, not a public health initiative, which carries serious risks of making the situation worse according to the British Medical Journal, Independent SAGE and one of the government’s own scientific advisers who said it was a very dangerous move.

Despite all those red lights flashing, despite the data, despite Matt Hancock saying students were driving infection, they are still gaslighting safety concerns aided and abetted by friendly media, sceptics and the lobbying groups who are so interlinked with the government it’s difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. Since becoming the first department to create a unit to supposedly tackle fake news the DfE has been pumping out propaganda. Despite complaints, they still have a Facebook post from October claiming schools have taken many measures including smaller class sizes. News sources regularly show pictures of classrooms with social distancing and masks being worn, and lobbyists are given equal weighting to counterbalance virologists and epidemiologists.

Claims are still being made that children do not contribute significantly to transmission and those working in education are said to be at no greater risk – but if that is the case then why is the government refusing to answer the NEU’s Freedom of Information requests on how many education workers have died? Official complaints have been made regarding the use of statistics in a study the government produced to prove workers were safe, and after providing unsatisfactory answers, it is now refusing the Freedom of Information requests to release the full data sets used in the report which is regularly quoted.

For a government that claims to be a fan of common sense, it is flying in the face of it. The question is why are we such an outlier on schools compared to other countries? Even Sweden has been more cautious around transmission in schools than England.

 

Does government policy create the narrative we see in favourable media or do the lobbyists and media narratives shape policy? The interlinked nature of them all makes it difficult to tell. What we do know is that while the government was ignoring its own scientists, notable names behind the Great Barrington Declaration were invited to discreet meetings. Another group, Us For Them, also celebrated meetings with various government representatives and even met with Boris Johnson in the summer.

Us For Them are a group that began in the spring calling for the immediate return of all students to school.They advocate the removal of all safety measures in schools, don’t agree with students being tested and believe that asymptomatic children who test positive shouldn’t have to isolate. They also tell people to forget about long Covid.

 I first heard of them when they were threatening to take the government to court for closing schools, as this story was promoted heavily by media personalities who were involved in the Vote Leave Campaign. In their summer newsletter they claim remarkable influence and success in changing government policy. They said they heavily influenced the government to scrap initial plans for blended learning in September in favour of full mandatory return, they say they encouraged the Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield to come out in favour of removing social distancing, they worked with the Mail on Sunday on an exposé and prevented schools “masking” students in July, and in June they were invited to submit evidence to the Education Select Committee.

In the past few days they have appeared across broadcast media and had pieces published in the Telegraph and Times that have been promoted and supported by Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee. I heard three interviews on Sunday where they claimed child transmission is low and risk to teachers is minimal. In one interview, they actually said, “Teachers are safer than other people because they are surrounded by children and they are low risk” – and the interviewer didn’t even challenge this statement. 

Impressive for a brand new group, when speaking to their supporters they like to take a lot of credit for the lack of safety measures in schools. Their newsletter finishes with a hint of mystery:

“A lot of the work we’ve done has needed to be behind the scenes, and much therefore hasn’t been Twitterable or, in fact disclosable at all. A much-valued, non-public advisor told us at the outset that what would count was ‘public discretion, private agitation’, and – where possible – that is the tactic we have used and it has served us well.”

The DfE has shown a disregard for education professionals and too much is shrouded in secrecy. It’s time for transparency.

           We need an answer to the Freedom of Information requests on worker infection, hospitalisations and deaths. We need the data on risk. We need the Chief Medical Officer’s and Chief Scientific Officer’s advice on keeping schools open in the final week of term.

We need the latest modelling on the new strain. We need to know who the government is meeting and how this is influencing the government to ignore its own scientific advice.

Those in education and our communities deserve to know what risks the government is willing for us to take, and what their justification is. Gavin Williamson might be willing to ignore the red flashing lights but we can see enough of the dashboard to know we’re in trouble.

Karam Bales is a member of the National Education Union Executive, writing in a personal capacity.

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