In prioritising schools reopening, Boris Johnson can’t forget about everyone else

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we should listen to the experts and act with maximum caution

Sean O'Grady@_seanogrady
Monday 22 February 2021 14:42
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What do you call a man who ignores medical advice? Why, Boris Johnson, of course. I don’t know about you, but given a choice between Professor Chris Whitty CB FRCP FFPH FMedSci and The Rt Hon Boris Johnson OMG FFS, I would always trust the professor about how to get out of a pandemic.

A few days ago it was reported that the prof was “very unhappy” about Johnson’s idea of a “Big Bang” full reopening of the schools. The respected epidemiologist is said to have taken a view that jamming 10m children and staff together at this stage was not a risk with taking. Downing Street has denied any rift.

As a man of the world, Whitty knows he can’t make the government do anything, and that in the end all these decisions are political and have to be made by ministers. He also knows that – even if he does not entirely agree with measures being taken – publicly denounce the policy would be a disaster for all concerned, that is including the public.

If schools are to open in such a hasty way, then other areas of activity that bring people together have to stay closed for longer, to offset the probable rise in outbreaks and infections that will inevitably come out of the classrooms. Therefore, pubs, clubs cinemas, theatres, retail and much of the rest of the economy will re-open later than they otherwise would.

Whitty is not bound by rash political sloganeering, though, and he knows that it is idiotic (to use the medical term) to say that the lifting of lockdown is now “irreversible”. If things go badly wrong after the schools reopen on 8 March then they may have to be shut again.

This is true if there is a rise in infection rates linked to the reopening of the schools, or because of some other effect, such as another mutation in the virus. Such an outcome is not only a terrible political and economic nightmare, but something that could very well be upon us all if we get it wrong now. The only truth we have learned in this country over the past year still pertains - there will likely be local outbreaks not least because we don’t have a test-and-trace regime that works. Lockdowns may become regionally or nationally as local outbreaks will not stay local without work.

The truth is that while schools are “safe” for children, because they tend not to get too sick from Covid, there is a risk for teachers, the other staff and indeed the wider community because there is a possibility they could act as hubs for infection and spreading the disease. They may not be the most important vector, but they are still a place where human beings come into relatively close contact.

The teachers would have every right to refuse to go to work and put their health on the line without a vaccination. If that means asking some of the priority groups to wait a little longer, then I believe that is the right thing to do. I for one would gladly offer my vaccination appointment to a young teacher.

As things stand, we could have schools full of children, adolescents and youngish adults, with virtually none vaccinated by 8 March. Nor will the majority of the older community have had their second jabs by then. So the welcome success of the vaccination roll out doesn’t really make it safe for everyone to go back to school.

Keeping the shops, or pubs and restaurants closed well after Easter, and retaining strict social distancing on public transport might be in the plan, but it seems unrealistic, even if they get plenty of financial support from the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, in the Budget on 3 March. The public and political pressure to end their lockdown will become intense. It might be that Johnson understands that perfectly well, and will actually double down on his gamble by then backtracking – allowing venues to open earlier. That would be a familiar tactic.

If the last year has taught us anything, it is that we should listen to the experts and act with maximum caution. We have always hoped for the best, and locked down too late, even when the early indicators on infection suggested a wave of death was approaching.

Time and again, too, when infection rates were improving we relaxed lockdowns too quickly, leading inexorably to an eventual upturn in Covid-19 cases and another lockdown, imposed too slowly and too patchily.

It is a constant pattern - reluctance to accept reality followed in due course by senseless optimism, a definition of the prime minister’s personality. It left Britain with 100,000 loved ones taken away, and one of the worst death rates in Europe. We should know who to blame, and we should be wary again.

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