Just now, my daughter, Rosa, 11, came and found me on her morning break from online schooling. She snuggled up and chatted on her phone; running a sudoku puzzle and several “urgent” conversations about LGBQI+ issues with school chums, while simultaneously berating me for excluding our malodorous dog from the cuddle. Apparently, I am heartless. Rosa, on the other hand, can deny those puppy eyes nothing – she would die like a doting mama for that dog.
If the Covid-19 era has taught us one thing, it is that we must appreciate the simple things; the obvious things, the essential things. Family and the fridge. It’s not just that family and fridge are pretty much all we have access to, but also that our loved ones, given that real, if remote, risk of losing them (or, as in my case, of being lost to them) are now so much more clearly the be-all and end-all.
So, I live for these moments with Rosa, and with my somewhat less natural snuggler of a teen son, Giorgio. Every hug is precious; a new gift – following the terror of Covid-19 hospitalisation last year – to be savoured and inhaled by my shallow, Covid-constricted lungs. You’d never take that away from me. I’d almost rather die.
And yet, at some level, that is the choice. Because I’ve been designated Extremely Clinically Vulnerable (ECV). In 1976, I ruptured my spleen in a gym accident at school. The resultant splenectomy has left me prone to overwhelming infection, and might have been the reason I had the misfortune to become an "early adopter" of Covid-19 last March – and the reason it hit me hard.
Being ECV means repeated letters, text messages and calls from the government and the local authority, reminding me to "shield" (as someone who earns a living from words, this misuse of a transitive verb irritates me every time. But not as much as the substantive message.)
The advice has included, "opening a window, but not a door" onto the world; not going anywhere – not even the pharmacy – and, of course, not seeing anyone. But, get this: the advice remains to keep two metres away from your family.
If disrupting Christmas can be described by our dear leader as "inhuman", asking me to keep two metres from Rosa, Giorgio, my partner Sarah, and our adult daughter Louisa (who’s back home for the duration of lockdown), for months on end, is simply impossible. It cannot be done. It will not be done. It must not be done.
While we are in lockdown, the risk is manageable. Indeed, it is managed for us. We bump into people in the park, but the distance is there and the conversations are brief. That’s it. The chances of Covid-19 returning to our house, for now, are remote.
Yet when schools reopen from March 8th, the risk assessment changes. Yes, there will be testing. Yes, there will be masks. But we all know that reopening schools will inevitably raise the infection rate among our young, and they will bring infections home. It is a given. It is a consequence the government, for reasons of politics – and as an essential precursor to reopening the economy – is seemingly prepared to accept.
So, I have a decision to make. It is a decision between two conflicting public health pronouncements: that it is ‘safe’ for my kids to go to school, and that it is ‘not safe’ for them to snuggle up with Dad.
It’s not an easy one. For starters, returning to school is not optional. Cautious parents have, outrageously, been threatened with fines, prosecution and deregistration of their kids. I’ve heard stories that being on the ECV list could be legal grounds for keeping kids at home, but I’m not sure I want to test that theory.
Besides, who wants to keep their children away from school when others are back? Friendships shift; those urgent LGBTQI+ conversations move on, and your child is left behind. Who wants that? In Lockdown 1.0, one of our kids fell off the academic map and nobody noticed, while the other seemed to be coping until school reopened – when the blossoming was so palpable and joyous that only then did we realise how hard the online learning had really been.
And then there’s the big, unmentionable unknown: what about the health of the kids themselves? Somehow, our government – which can squirm like a barrel of eels when asked to ensure that our hungriest children are fed – has made it heretical to discuss anything but the mental health of our young. And only one element of their mental health at that: the mental health benefits of attending school.
The stress of possibly bringing Covid-19 into the home and endangering, or indeed actually killing, parents or grandparents is not to be discussed. Physical health – mental health’s lacklustre junior sibling, for the purposes of the government’s playbook – is not to be counted, because kids by and large do not die from Covid-19. And, if they do catch it, they often do not show symptoms. So exposing them to the virus is not deemed to be serious.
But the facts are uncomfortable. Many people think kids don’t get Covid-19. In fact, they are currently (and consistently) one of the most infected age groups. So what, if it doesn’t harm them? Except... that it does, in some cases. The ONS shows that 12-15 per cent of infected schoolchildren, including those with mild or asymptomatic infections, suffer from long Covid. That means hundreds of thousands of kids. How long is long Covid? We don’t know. How bad for their health could long Covid be, in years to come? We don’t know that, either.
We also don’t want to know – because there’s simply too much heat around this debate. It means we aren’t doing what we keep wishing the government would do: we aren’t following the evidence. We aren’t even discussing the evidence. Given that we are making a judgment for an entire generation of children, this is – to put it mildly – suboptimal.
So, the question of whether it is safe for me to hug my kids after school, is conjoined with the question of whether it is it safefor them to be at school. If the answer to the latter were genuinely "yes", why would the answer to the former need to be "no"?
But when those puppy eyes ask if they can go to school, what will I do? I will of course melt like the doting papa that I am, and send them on their way; but let’s hope I don’t have to die like a doting papa as a result. And let’s hope, for our youngsters’ sake, that in years to come, the phenomenon of long Covid is long forgotten.
Dominic Minghella is a partner in the political consultancy, Lucas Minghella, and a screenwriter and producer at Island Pictures. He is best known as the writer/creator of ITV’s long-running comedy drama, Doc Martin
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