Why is the Government Considering Removing COVID-19 Protections in Schools?
English schools have some of the poorest safety precautions in Europe, yet the Department of Education used the Easter break to consider stripping them away
Parents and scientists are increasingly concerned that the Government is planning to remove already substandard COVID-19 protections in schools.
Where other countries have recognised the growing risks to children and their families through transmission in schools, in part due to the new variant, and are looking for ways to increase protections, debate in the UK is skewed by well funded libertarian groups and a Government only too willing to heed their views.
Even as schools returned in March the Government accepted it was a risk. Boris Johnson admitted that ‘large numbers of kids are a considerable vector of transmission’ even as he went against SAGE advice and reopened all schools on a single day. National Education Union joint General Secretary Mary Bousted warned that if ‘transmission rates rise again in schools, peaking as they did last December with secondary pupils the most infected age group and primary pupils the second most infected, the responsibility will be his.’
Bousted’s warning proved right. Three weeks on from schools reopening Public Health England reported that ‘case rates are highest in those aged 10 to 19, with a case rate of 109.8 per 100,000 population’, blaming the increase on ‘the impact of schools reopening’.
We know from experience what happens next. Without further protections cases in schools will continue to rise, gradually spreading infections up the age profile as pupils take the virus home. Last December schools transmission ‘greatly facilitated the spread of the virus to families and into the community’, ushering in the second wave that doubled the number of UK deaths from 74,693 at the end of November to 150,116 at the start of April.
Despite the success of the vaccination programme we cannot rely on vaccines alone. No vaccine is 100% effective at preventing infection or serious disease. ONS data shows more people have been vaccinated than test positive for antibodies, evidence that for some vaccines are less or not effective. At the same time there are concerns over lack of take up in some groups, particularly those from minority ethnic communities.
Just as importantly, deaths are not the only outcome we need to prevent. It takes time for the long term impacts of new diseases to be understood. SARS, for example, which hit parts of Asia in 2003 was later found to cause long-term bone and lung consequences in some patients. Another study found 40% of patients still had chronic fatigue symptoms three and a half years after being diagnosed.
Scientists monitored patients for 15 years before fully understanding how SARS harmed patients. There is no reason for COVID-19 to be any different. Given the ability of COVID-19 to reach and harm many more bodily systems than SARS or its cousin MERS scientists fear the new virus could cause more long term damage. The result, said the US National Institutes of Health, could be ‘major adverse outcomes’ across ‘different body systems’.
This explains why so many scientists believe it just as important for us to limit infections as to keep people out of ICU. We simply don’t know what long term impacts will result from even mild or moderate illness, particularly among children whose bodies are still developing.
Even with what we know now we have enough information to push us to end transmission. The ONS found over a million people were living with Long COVID-19 – broadly defined as having symptoms for over 4 weeks – in a single month to 6 March. 70,000 had been ill for over a year; 500,000 for over six months.
Children are just as much at risk as their parents. The Kent variant has been shown to infect children more easily than the original from Wuhan. By March the ONS found 9.8% of infected children aged two to 11, and 13% of 12 to 16 year olds, develop persistent long-term symptoms. Some 7-8% of all children infected developed long-term symptoms lasting as long as 12 weeks or more.
The rationale for ensuring maximum safety protections in schools ought therefore to be clear for the protection of both children and their adult family members. Yet just as other nations are responding to new data by increasing protections – both Germany and Belgium have made strong statements about the need for increased protections in schools to prevent transmission – the UK Government seems determined to go its own way.
Protections in schools in England are some of the poorest across Europe and the globe, yet the Department of Education is using the Easter break to consider stripping them away. ‘We remain committed to reviewing this guidance at Easter,’ the Department announced as recently as 27 March, even as data confirming the rise in cases among teenagers even with current restrictions was confirmed.
Parents and scientists fear that the Government have already made up their minds. Education unions have been asked to answer specific questions on mask use but suspect that surveys have been skewed to favour the Government’s preferred outcome.
‘While the Department for Education has asked questions about adherence, benefits, harms and tolerability of mask use in schools,’ says Deepti Gurdasani, senior lecturer in epidemiology at Queen Mary University, ‘it’s unclear whether and how they will assess the primary benefits of mask use, i.e. reduction in transmission and infection among children and into the community, and the benefits in terms of Long COVID, and reducing the risk of virus adaptation.’
Unions have made clear they want mask use to continue. ‘Efforts to keep pupils and staff safe will be in vain if safety measures are lifted too soon,’ said Unison head of education Jon Richards. ‘Instead, prevention measures should be strengthened to avoid the need for closures, especially of primary schools.’
Concerned parents fear that the Government are listening to other voices. There has been pressure to end mask use from groups such as UsForThem, an influential group with access to Ministers and opaque funding sources. They have threatened the Government with legal action if they refuse to end mask use in schools, following similar tactics last summer credited by some as influencing Gavin Williamson’s decision to reopen schools in September with no safety measures.
Many parents fear for their own and their children’s safety if measures are reduced. ‘It isn’t morally or legally acceptable for a socially responsible society to unnecessarily expose anyone, regardless of age or occupation, to COVID-19,’ said Sarah, a mother of two teenagers.
‘Since children returned to school child infection rates have increased in all age groups. Removing this vital layer of defence is going to drive infection rate up and create more chronic long term health. We cannot afford to expose children to a virus that we do not understand,’ said Sammie MacFarland of Long Covid Kids, a campaign group that represents children with Long COVID-19 and the families.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said she was unaware of the review into mask use in schools, despite it being publicly stated by the Department for Education. No one was available to comment at the Department for Education.
The bigger picture is that our vaccine strategy is entirely vaccine based. Test and trace doesn’t work, despite costing billions. There is no wider mitigation or eradication strategy. The Government is reopening society fully aware that doing so will increase infections, betting that vaccine rollout will prevent serious infection in enough people that ICUs will not become full.
We are already far behind other nations, World Health Organisation and US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines. Prematurely ending mask use in schools would put us further back still and consign many more children and adults to infections, Long COVID-19 and uncertain health outcomes.
Mike Buckley is director of the campaign group ‘Labour for a European Future’
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