Mike Buckley reports on how the Government has wasted a year in providing COVID-19 protection for nearly nine million pupils

If the measure of a healthy society is that it takes care of its vulnerable, then the UK is failing. This can clearly be seen with the Coronavirus crisis.

The Government has failed to protect vulnerable groups from the health impacts of COVID-19. Deaths among care home residents were needlessly and tragically high in the first wave. Six in 10 people who died in England in 2020 were disabled, even though one in 10 people in the population have a disability. The risk of death has also been disproportionately high among black and ethnic minority groups, who are more likely to work in low-paid jobs where they are unable to isolate or self distance.  

But, despite these tragedies, the Government have not learned caution.

The rushed opening of schools last week without adequate safety measures risks adding a further group of vulnerable people to the list of those harmed: children.

While the devolved Welsh and Scottish Governments are acting a little more cautiously, the UK Government has opened all English schools on a single day without the protections put in place in other countries and advised by the World Health Organisation and its own advisors on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

Long-Term Risks

The mass re-opening of schools puts 8.9 million pupils into indoors environments in which they cannot socially distance, where there is inadequate ventilation, and where many of them are not forced to wear masks. It is little different to asking the same number of office workers to return to their desks, much as the Government would wish us to believe otherwise. 

The potential for transmission of the virus is huge. In the early days of the pandemic, it was hoped that children would be unlikely to catch COVID-19. Because the virus is more lethal among older groups it was believed that children were either immune or at least far less likely to catch it. However, we now know that children are about as likely to become infected as older people, in part due to the new variant. 

Once children have the virus, they pass it on just as adults do. Recent analyses from the Office for National Statistics suggest that, once schools are open, two to 12-year-olds are twice as likely, and 12-16-year-olds are seven times more likely, to be the index case in a household compared with adults. Both age groups are twice as likely to transmit to contacts within the household compared to adults. 

Given that most adults are yet to be vaccinated, and those that have in most cases have had only one dose, the adult population is not yet immune. While children are still highly unlikely to die from the Coronavirus, they are increasingly likely to develop symptoms. Among those who do become infected, five to 10% develop ongoing symptoms, otherwise known as Long COVID.

Children with long-term symptoms seem to stay sick. Parents describe a range of symptoms affecting children’s physical and mental health, including fatigue, personality changes, depression and skin complaints. It seems not to make any difference whether the child had pre-existing health conditions or whether the initial infection was symptomatic or not. 

Many scientists believe that a zero COVID-19 approach, as followed in much of Asia and New Zealand, is the only safe course of action. In the short-term, it saves lives and prevents long-term sickness, as well as allowing largely normal daily life, albeit with the caveat that borders are closed and tracing systems need to be robust. 

Just as importantly in the long-term, pursuing zero infections protects a country’s population, including its children, from as yet unknown long-term effects of COVID-19 which scientists are only beginning to guess at. 

Viruses, including other coronaviruses, show an association with long-term chronic and at times debilitating conditions. Expecting COVID-19 to behave any differently is in all likelihood wishful thinking.

There are already concerns that COVID-19 may infect key brain cells, causing neurons to die. Other long-term symptoms which could endure or recur include lung function abnormalities, acute kidney injury and depression. There is still so much we don’t know. 

Forcing Parents to Accept Risk

The Government has wasted a year in which schools could have been made safe, in contrast to other developed nations.

Many European countries, including Germany and France, are putting in stricter safety measures than the UK. Even Scotland and Wales have staggered the re-opening of schools to allow for results to be measured and for greater social distancing. The World Health Association and the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention advocate stringent safety measures.

Yet the UK Government is forcing parents to return children to schools where even masks are not always compulsory, where social distancing is difficult to impossible, where ventilation is lacking, and there is no additional provision of space in the form of extra classrooms or access to unused buildings. This is also regardless of whether their child or another family member has an underlying condition which would put them at high risk should they contract COVID-19.

The Government argues that it has put in place mass testing for pupils, yet the lateral flow tests they are using often provide false results. This will leave some children at home needlessly, but will allow others into school while infected.

Within schools, the Government only advises that masks be worn “where social distancing cannot be maintained” – and even then only until Easter. The US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention advises that “well-fitting, multi-layer” masks be worn at all times, combined with ventilation, air filters, exhaust filters and outside teaching. England’s safety measures for schools are all but non-existent. 

Many parents are unwilling to return their children to school without better safety measures being put in place, concerned both for their children’s safety and their own. Some have children with Long COVID-19 and do not want to risk others in the household. Others have family and friends who are seriously ill. Others have simply done the research. 

One parent I spoke to has an underlying condition which would put her at severe risk should she contract the Coronavirus. Her mother, also a member of their household, is highly vulnerable. Yet she has been threatened with court action and fines if she refuses to return her children to school.

Another parent was told “you’ve had your life, you should be willing to sacrifice yourself for your child’s education”.

This is not an argument for schools to remain closed – children need to be educated and require social interaction. Inequalities of education, health and learning have grown over the past year. But this does not mean that children’s health, or the health of their families, is no longer important. 

The Government should follow the lead of other nations and make schools safe. At a minimum, masks should be compulsory and social distancing enforced. But, given what we know about the virus’ airborne transmission, there is a need for more. Opening windows is not enough to create adequate ventilation – schools should be equipped with air filters. Lunch times should be staggered or ideally held outside in purpose-built tents.

There is a wide array of possible measures – we just need the will to do it. The tragedy in England is that the Government is refusing to try. 

Mike Buckley is a freelance journalist and director of Campaign Central


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