A reckless strategy

Going for a ‘Big Bang’ in schools could let the viral genie back out of the bottle, argues Paul Atkin.

Last weekend the education unions – all of them, the heads unions, teachers unions, support staff unions – described the prospect of schools being open to all students from March 8th as “reckless”. So a clear steer from SAGE that no modelled scenario would lead to a significant increase in infections, and the devolved governments all opening on a partial and carefully monitored basis, a decisive move from Labour to back this position for England too should have been enough to push the government towards a more careful stance. No dice.

The detailed points made in Parliament by Keir Starmer and others – on the need for the sort of additional measures to make schools safer put forward by the unions since last summer and consistently ignored by the government  were barely considered newsworthy. This is because they were not made conditions for Opposition support – simply put as helpful suggestions, which the government will ignore as it presses on as regardless as General Haig at the Somme.

This unwillingness to confront and absence of an alternative strategy to eliminate the virus – which reflects a fatalism about the impossibility of doing what so many countries in the Western Pacific region have done and eliminated domestic infections – also undermine the more cautious positions being expressed by Chris Whitty and others. Whitty spoke – with the deadpan gloom of a defeated man – after the PM’s announcement on Monday about COVID19 becoming just another viral infection we have to live with, like flu and pneumonia. The implications of a one-way road map to not eliminating the virus has chilling implications for all of us, because this is a lot more deadly and the longer it is out there the worse the mutations could get. Back to herd immunity, anyone?

 This failure also allowed the BBC to present the only debate about this as being between the supposedly “careful” Johnson and the deeply misnamed “Covid Recovery Group”, who want everything unlocked sooner than it’s safe to do so, on the social Darwinian basis that those who are going to die probably deserve to.

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.

A Zero Covid Strategy is possible

As a result of the lockdown – not because of vaccinations – infections are coming down quite fast, halving every 15 days. With the infections on February 18th running at just over 12,000, other things being equal , they would still be at just under 6,000 a day on March 8th. This would be 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 around, we are looking at a daily infection rate five times worse than then with a virus that is considered up to 70% more contagious.

 It’s 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 1,000 a day. Opening before then means that they won’t be.  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 trace system, run through the Health Service and Local Authorities, not Serco.

But the government is choosing not to take it

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.”

This move on schools 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 is no excuse for not opening up the rest of the economy.”

The government says that they are driven by data not dates, but have presented a handy list of dates for this lot to mobilise around and no clear data, so, we can see where this is going.

It’s the lockdown not the vaccinations that have driven cases down

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 Teaching Assistants 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.” The current level of attendance in primary schools is around 20-25%. Bump this back up to the pre pandemic norm of 95% and how hard is it to predict what’s going to happen?

Limit the damage now, but go for Zero Covid to eliminate 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 is the plan in Wales and Scotland, with Early Years and Infants back next week, but a projected fuller opening for the rest of Primary and some Secondary year groups being contingent on a continuing improvement in infection reduction. A government concerned with public health would listen to them.

Labour should back them as a bottom line – and call for the Zero Covid strategy that is within our grasp, but the Tories fail to seize.

Paul Atkin blogs at https://urbanramblings19687496.city/

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