How Did the Government Get It So Recklessly Wrong on COVID-19, Children and Schools?
Despite evidence showing the risk of teachers catching the Coronavirus in schools and then passing it on to others in the community, the Government has ignored the issue at every turn, says Adam Hamdy
COVID-19 infection rates among teachers are up to four times higher than the average. This news, reported by Tes, raises serious questions about the Government’s repeated assertions that teachers face no greater risk than other professionals.
In November, Dr Sarah Rasmussen, a Cambridge University mathematician, complained to the UK Statistics Authority that data by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) about the risk to teachers was “unacceptably – and seemingly intentionally – misleading”.
Evidence showed that some teachers were 28% more likely to catch the Coronavirus than other key workers, but the data was “held up as evidence that teachers were not at any additional risk”. Dr Rasmussen’s subsequent work on this issue suggests that teachers were at an increased risk of infection.
She is one of many experts who have been warning about the transmission of the virus in schools and the risk to teachers and other school staff for months. Yet, the risk has been downplayed by the Government at every turn and the Department for Education has even made public statements about the risk to teachers using outdated and incomplete data.
Last June, the Harvard School of Public Health published its guidance on reopening schools safely. Recognising the risks of aerosol transmission of COVID-19, it recommended face masks, improved ventilation, smaller teaching groups and provision for online learning, along with a host of other measures to make schools safe. These recommendations were almost entirely ignored by the Government, which instead focused on mitigating fomite – surface or physical contact – transmission risk.
The UK Government is one of only a handful in the world that has refused to implement a universal mask mandate in schools when faced with high levels of COVID-19 infections. UK classrooms are already among the most crowded in Europe, but the Government failed to follow the example of countries such as Denmark, which reduced transmission risk by providing the resources for smaller teaching groups. Germany invested in improved ventilation, while British schools were told to open windows.
The Government, and campaign groups such as UsForThem, sought to portray the issue as a binary choice between reopening schools and keeping them closed. Most scientists and public health experts were in fact recommending the implementation of safety measures that would enable schools to stay open safely. By failing to implement proper safety measures, the Government has made it impossible for schools to stay open and may well have contributed to the accelerated spread of COVID-19 in the community.
Evidence for Guidance Lacking
Last August, I wrote to Osama Rahman, chief science advisor at the Department for Education, drawing his attention to the evidence that suggested transmission in schools would become a problem and highlighting some of the safety measures which the Harvard School of Public Health and other public health bodies had recommended.
Along with other campaigners, I also contacted my local authority and the Health and Safety Executive to raise concerns.
The response from those tasked with maintaining safety in schools was that they were following Department for Education guidance. However, the department seems to have been focused on reopening schools with as little investment or inconvenience as possible and, in some cases, has provided guidance which is directly contrary to the latest scientific evidence.
For example, it is difficult to see where the evidence came for its assertion that masks should not be used in classrooms. The department states: “Based on current evidence and the measures that schools are already putting in place, such as the system of controls and consistent bubbles, face coverings will not be necessary in the classroom even where social distancing is not possible. Face coverings could have a negative impact on teaching and their use in the classroom should be avoided.”
Many scientists have asked to see the department’s evidence for this. Experience in other countries where teachers and children wear masks in classrooms suggest that there is little or no scientific evidence to suggest their use might be harmful.
The argument that teachers and school staff should just get on with it, like supermarket and other essential workers, is also reckless.
Unlike other workers, school staff have been given little or no protection. A number of schools banned teachers from wearing masks in classrooms and pupils were discouraged from wearing them in classrooms – despite teachers being at greater risk than essential workers, a category that includes doctors and frontline healthcare workers.
In contrast, supermarket workers were protected by the rules requiring customers to wear face masks in shops and by measures taken by their employers to minimise the risk of transmission.
Another reason such an argument is reckless is that an increased transmission risk for teachers translates into increased community risk. If teachers pick up the virus at school, they are more likely to give it to their family and then to people in other employment and community settings. My social media notifications are packed with teachers telling me how they caught COVID-19 at school and passed it on to family members who had a severe illness or required hospitalisation.
The increased risk to teachers and school staff has been obvious to them for months. It has also been obvious to teaching unions, which have been trying to obtain occupational risk data.
The National Education Union has been asking for this data since last August, when it became apparent that the ONS would not release further information on occupational deaths. The Government has refused union requests for this information, while threatening legal action against schools that wanted to close a few days early in the run-up to Christmas to protect staff and the wider community.
In October, Eran Segal, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute, warned the world not to make the same mistake as Israel. Citing evidence from Israel’s experience of reopening schools, he said: “Do not open schools with a high number of daily cases and high infection rates (R around 1). This will fuel a further surge.”
Data from Germany, South Korea and elsewhere suggested that children were at least as infectious as adults, but the Government sought to downplay the risk, relying instead on a small cadre of scientists who presented weak evidence that children didn’t really transmit the virus.
Dr Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London, has provided a useful summary of the evidence and an explanation of why so many commentators were wrong to dismiss the risk.
The day before schools were closed for England’s latest seven-week lockdown, the Prime Minister appeared on national television and told the country that schools were perfectly safe. I believe there must be an independent investigation into the statements made by Boris Johnson, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and other members of the Government who have asserted this. It is crucial to the restoration of public trust to know why it got this issue so badly wrong, particularly when there are thousands of families who have suffered as a result.
And when schools reopen, the Government must make the investment needed to ensure that they can do so safely and sustainably. It is not enough to say that education is a national priority – the Government must back up its words with action.
Adam Hamdy is an author and helped to organise and write the ‘John Snow Memo’
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