There is a concerted propaganda offensive against our teachers and parents, with headlines screaming, ‘Reopen our schools.’ But the schools aren’t closed! Teachers have been working heroically, at risk to their own health, teaching at-risk children and the children of key workers, while simultaneously teaching all the other children online.
The National Education Union (NEU) reports today that Covid is surging among primary age children because 20% of them are still in school. Zero Covid fully supports the NEU’s demand that the UK government should strengthen the lockdown to make it more effective. We also support their demand that during this lockdown schools in England should be refitted to make them Covid-safe, with adequate ventilation and sufficient resources to significantly reduce class sizes, simple measures that simply haven’t been implemented.
It is worth looking at the figures behind the so called ‘Us For Them’ campaign, which is lobbying hard for schools to reopen early, and which now has the backing of 17 Tory MPs. Their most prominent adviser is Westminster PR man Ed Barker, who played a key role in Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, and who also advises the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs. Us For Them wields extraordinary influence for such a tiny campaign. Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson, for example, responded to their petition, which gained less than 17,000 signatures, while completely ignoring the Parents United for Safe Schools petition, which has over 280,000 signatures. The overwhelming majority of parents want their schools and their communities to be safe, however much the media tries to tell you otherwise.
Of course we all want schools, and everything else for that matter, to reopen as soon as possible. But only when it is safe. The UK government’s partial lockdown is dragging on for so long precisely because it is so ineffective. 20 million people are being forced to continue working in unsafe conditions, often using overcrowded public transport to get to work, in order to make ends meet; while the hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors bear the brunt of the lockdown pain, along with parents trying their best to home-school their children.
Instead of endless, repeated and ineffective lockdowns, the UK government should get a grip of this pandemic once and for all; the state must pay all workers (other than those in industries that are absolutely necessary for the preservation of life) to stay at home for long enough to drive down community transmission to the level at which a reformed, locally based, public sector test and trace system can keep us safe. As Stephen Reicher of Independent SAGE explained on Friday, the more effective the lockdown the shorter it would need to be. The longer we wait until we lock down properly, the longer children will continue to be separated from their teachers and friends.
The UK government wants us to pin all our hopes on the vaccine. But that alone will not be sufficient. Fully reopening the economy when only 13.5 million of the most at-risk people have been vaccinated is a recipe for disaster, an open invitation to allow further mutations of the virus. Eventually a variant may emerge that is resistant to the vaccines, putting everyone at risk once again.
Instead of pressuring the British and devolved governments to cram children back into unsafe classrooms, in which the virus – and particularly its new variants – thrive, why don’t those MPs and lobby groups instead turn their fire on the UK Government and demand the adoption of an elimination strategy, of the kind that allows countries like Australia and Vietnam to give those crying ‘open up’ what they claim to want?
If they really care about children’s welfare, they’ll want them to be safe, in schools that are distanced, and provided with protective equipment until community transmission is ended. They’ll support the teaching unions campaigning to make schools safe. They’ll support Zero Covid.
But if this supposed concern for schools is just a pretext to reopen prematurely and let the virus tear through the population, they’ll keep campaigning to repeat the disastrous mistakes of last autumn, cramming children, who the Prime Minister has acknowledged are vectors of transmission, into dangerous classrooms, risking their health and that of their families.
So cards on the table: which is it to be?
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