Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

4 Nov

Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.

Jason Reed: History will judge us for our response to the Uyghur genocide

23 Aug

Jason Reed is Deputy Editor of 1828 and digital director at the British Conservation Alliance.

Hollow declarations of socio-political high-mindedness are all the rage in political discourse these days, especially on the Left. People love to talk about how righteous they are and how evil everyone else is. One of the virtue signallers’ favourite talking points as of late is that, had they been alive two hundred years ago, they would have publicly opposed slavery.

Slavery was the accepted norm of the time. But many on the Left love to talk about how they would have gone against the grain, selflessly sacrificing any public standing in order to become revolutionaries and voice their disgust at the unspeakable horror of slavery, even if nothing came of them doing the right thing. They insist that they would always stand up for the basic human rights to life, dignity and freedom, no matter the difficulty of the circumstances.

While we can’t put that claim to the test directly, we can achieve a close approximation by observing how those same people on the Left react to the genocide that is taking place in front of us today. Unsurprisingly, it’s not looking good.

The Chinese Communist Party is shamelessly massacring Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The proof that has emerged of the horrors taking place within the Chinese borders is overwhelming. No matter how much you might want to twist the truth, it is now impossible to repudiate what is happening in China. A genocide is taking place. Not only can it no longer be denied – it can no longer be ignored.

This ongoing ethnic cleansing represents all the very worst of humanity. Blinded by religious prejudice and racial hatred, energised by an uncompromising desire for ethnic purity, and driven by an impulsive need for total control over its people, the Chinese government is committing the single most heinous act of which mankind is capable.

Every day, new irrefutable evidence surfaces. Each batch of new information is more heart-wrenching than the last. It is now over a month since the Andrew Marr Show broadcast appalling drone footage of Uyghur Muslims being blindfolded, lined up and packed onto a train to be carted off to remote government facilities. The Chinese Government, via its ambassador in London, responded by denying flat-out on live television that which has already been proven beyond any doubt.

The Russian government also denies acts of aggression even when the world knows it is guilty, such as after the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury. But it does so with a knowing smirk. Vladimir Putin likes to see how far he can push Western governments before they lose patience. He knows full well that we don’t believe a word of what he says, and he doesn’t care. One gets the impression that he even finds it funny.

But China is different. When Liu Xiaoming, Beijing’s UK ambassador, was asked by Marr to explain the footage, he seemed almost offended. How dare we interfere in China’s domestic affairs? The CCP embodies a coldness. It lacks humanity. It believes that it is perfectly within its rights to do what it is doing, and it is taken aback that we Westerners should dare to object to it.

The Chinese response to the drone footage was not a one-off. There is a clear pattern forming in the way the CCP intends to deal with these kinds of accusations. Earlier this month, a new piece of evidence emerged. A Uyghur fashion model by the name of Merdan Ghappar filmed himself handcuffed to a bed and described in detail the 18 days he had spent chained up and hooded with dozens of others in one of the government’s “centres”.

Once again, in their official response to the surfacing of damning new evidence, the Chinese authorities habitually tell total mistruths. They have no substantive counter-argument to offer, so they lie. They insist, for example, that highly secure “re-education camps” are entirely voluntary schools for anti-extremism training.

Rather than calling this behaviour out for what it is, rather than pointing to the reams of evidence incriminating the Chinese government, the left somehow chooses to equivocate. Perhaps they are motivated by the word “communist” in the CCP’s name. Or maybe they are merely keen to maintain their record of siding with all the worst regimes in the world. Either way, leftists doge the issue and engage in what effectively amounts to CCP apologism.

As a result, China thinks it can get away with anything. The Chinese government feels no shame for what it is doing. It denies completely that anything out of the ordinary is happening in Xinjiang, let alone that people are being systematically incarcerated, torn from their loved ones, sterilised and murdered because of their race and religion. It does not show a flicker of remorse as it issues its blanket denials of any wrongdoing.

That’s because the Chinese government believes the West is weak. They stare us in the face and deny what is plain to see. They look us in the eye and tell us that the sky is green, and expect us to back down. They poke and prod us relentlessly, expecting no retaliation. They think they can get away with doing whatever they want and never be held accountable or face the consequences of their actions. Why do they think that? Because of useful idiots on the Left in the West who will defend them to the death.

So, perhaps, if those on the British Hard Left truly do support human rights above all else no matter how inconvenient it might be to say so, and they really would have openly opposed slavery 200 years ago, they should prove it now by standing up for the group which is on the receiving end of the most awful violence and oppression imaginable.

If we have any conscience at all, as a nation and as a society, we simply cannot allow what is happening in China to continue. We are at a crossroads in our global political journey. As the UK leaves the European Union, the world watches on to see which direction Britain will choose. On the one hand, we could give in to the leftist, isolationist Little England vision of a reclusive UK which has no major role to play on the world stage.

Alternatively, we could make that post-Brexit Global Britain we have heard so much about into a reality. Surely, opposing genocide is one issue on which we should be able to achieve a universal consensus. A crime against humanity is taking place and history will judge us for how we respond to it. Uyghur Muslims desperately need our help. Let’s not waver or quibble. Let’s answer their call.