Emily Carver: Why ministers were wrong to overrule official advice on vaccinating school pupils

15 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Decision-making throughout the pandemic has been inconsistent, confused and often illogical. We’ve had a patchwork of ever-changing regulations, from ‘scotch egg gate’ and unevidenced alcohol bans, to the confused and unworkable traffic light system, school closures and work from home mandates.

This erratic approach may have been understandable at the start of the pandemic; 18 months on, it’s intolerable.

The Government’s latest announcement of a Covid winter plan will see the continuation of sweeping public health powers, including mass asymptomatic testing, contact tracing, and the possibility of mandatory vaccine passports – which were only days ago rejected publicly by the Health Secretary. At the same time, the threat of lockdown measures remains, with the Public Health Act, under which restrictions were legally enforced, still firmly on the statute book.

This week’s news that the Government has chosen to go ahead with the roll-out of vaccinations to children aged between 12 and 15, against the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), is troubling for many reasons.

The JCVI released a statement only days ago that explained that while the benefits from vaccination are “marginally greater than the potential known harms”, there is “considerable uncertainty” regarding the magnitude of these potential harms – and therefore the Government should not go ahead with a mass roll-out of vaccinations for children in this age group.

The argument has been made many times that inoculating teenagers will prevent transmission in schools – to the benefit of both the schoolchildren themselves, staff, and the wider community. The JCVI, however, noted that there remains the impact of vaccination on peer-to-peer transmission as well as transmission in the wider (highly vaccinated) population is far from sure; any impact on transmission would be, if anything, relatively small.

However, despite this recommendation, ministers, determined to push ahead with the roll-out deferred to Chris Whitty. Perhaps other factors, besides medical reasons, might tip the balance?

Chief Medical Officers swiftly recommended the jabs, not on strictly medical grounds, but as an “important and useful tool” in reducing school disruption in the coming months and thus minimising the harms to children’s mental health. To put it bluntly, the Government is overruling the JCVI scientific advice and concerns to vaccinate 12 to 15-year-olds on the grounds of preventing the disruption of school closures – which was always and remains a political decision.

The messaging is clear: have the vaccine, or risk not being able to go to school. Sounds suspiciously like coercion to me.

In any case, it’s certainly not clear cut that jabbing children will avoid loss of school time. `The JCVI flagged that delivery of a Covid-19 vaccine programme for children and young people is likely to be disruptive to education and that some children may have to miss schooling due to adverse reactions to the vaccination.

According to calculations by Professor David Paton of Nottingham University Business School, based on the Government’s own figures, the decision to authorise vaccinating this cohort was based on modelling that the programme will avoid the loss of only 15 minutes of schooling per pupil over a six-month period. That’s assuming no vaccinated children have been previously infected, that no time would be lost administering the vaccination, and that no school time would be lost from pupils suffering side effects from the vaccine.

More pressing is why this is the first time other factors, including the impact of lost education and the mental well-being of children, are being considered by the Government in their decision-making? Why were the deleterious effects on children’s mental health not taken into account when schools were locked down for weeks and months on end? The decision to close schools, like this decision to roll-out the vaccine to children, is a political one – surely it warranted a similar assessment of the various, and largely predictable, impacts on children’s wellbeing?

The case has been made by some that the Government is simply making the jab available. Why shouldn’t parents and children be given the choice? The state surely shouldn’t stand in their way.

However, the idea that the Government is just making it available is naïve – we know state action won’t be limited to letting young people and parents know the jab is there if they want it. Schools will be used as vaccination sites and the threat of further school closures and lockdowns will act as indirect coercion, possibly causing distress and placing undue pressure on children to get jabbed. And while many parents will be understandably concerned that this vaccination is still technically on trial and only approved on an emergency basis, children will have the final say; the Government has itself conceded this.

Remember when Matt Hancock said that restrictions would end once the most vulnerable had been vaccinated? Now, several months on, it looks like freedom will be conditional on the continued inoculation of the population, including children – a reality that is not only ethically reprehensible but firmly at odds with the values of individual liberty and personal autonomy.

It may be that for those of a libertarian disposition, where you come down on this argument hinges on how benevolent you believe government to be. Sadly, nothing during this pandemic has given me hope that the Government won’t continue to use coercion to control our response to this, now endemic, virus.

“We have prepared a Plan B”. The Health Secretary’s Commons statement – full text

14 Sep

“Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.

Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.

Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.

Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.

There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.

Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.

This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.

As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.

Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.

The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.

Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.

Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.

Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.

The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.

Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.”

As the Government u-turns on vaccine passports, how are we supposed to take the ‘Winter Plan’ seriously?

13 Sep

Poor Nadhim Zahawi. After spending most of last week gamely making the case for vaccine passports, he becomes the latest to have the rug pulled from beneath him by the Prime Minister’s fickle whim.

The vaccines minister wasn’t even given the opportunity to make the announcement, that honour being taken by Sajid Javid during his tour of the Sunday morning TV studios.

As we noted last week, the odds of a u-turn on this seemed pretty high. Not only was it a source of much disquiet on the Conservative backbenches, but the Government seemed reluctant to state the actual case for the policy – creating an incentive for hesitant people to get the vaccine.

Instead, Zahawi was left to allude to (but not actually make) a case that targeting onerous restrictions on venues used overwhelmingly by young people has tangible public health benefits. Few seemed convinced. At least now he can go back to his earlier firm commitments that the Government would not introduce vaccine passports, which people have been cruelly digging up on Twitter.

This inconstancy of policy means that opponents of vaccine passports probably shouldn’t rest on their laurels. It remains to be seen if Boris Johnson’s new ‘winter plan’ will survive contact with a winter surge. If it doesn’t, it will be extremely vexing to many voters if extra restrictions are placed on everybody because we refused to target them at the unvaccinated.

And we cannot take the Prime Minister’s words about no more national lockdowns – or indeed the Health Secretary’s promise that we’ll get a proper Christmas this year – than ministers’ earlier undertakings on similar subjects. That’s the price a government pays for making cheap promises and too frequently changing its mind.

Nor will ministers be keen to go out and make difficult cases on Johnson’s behalf if they think senior colleagues will undercut them on the Sunday shows. Although that will only be a problem so long as the Government still has controversial arguments to make, and this weekend’s fold on planning reform suggests Johnson may be trying to put those days behind him.

The Government is not making a good case for vaccine passports in nightclubs

9 Sep

Nightclubs have few friends in politics. The opening year or so of the pandemic made that perfectly clear, when they were shuttered and then left all but unmentioned, any potential reopening pinned as a last order of business.

Despite that, judging by the state of the battle over vaccine passports it doesn’t look as if the Government’s bid to impose them on the nightlife sector is going to succeed.

It may be that opponents of the plan, on all sides of the House, are swivel-eyed libertarian loons. Andrew Rawnsley compares them to defenders of drunk driving or smoking in pubs.

But normally, when facing off against such people, the Government has a clear (if not always compelling) public health narrative of its own. Whereas its difficult to tease out, from the news coverage or even Hansard, what the motivation for vaccine passports actually is. Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Nadhim Zahawi claimed that:

“The view of our clinical experts is that the additional relative safety of people having to be doubled vaccinated before they can enter a nightclub does begin to mitigate super-spreader events, which could cause us, in effect, to take a decision to close nightclubs, which we would not want to do.”

But a report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, quoted by Alistair Carmichael in the Times, says that the Government has “failed to give any scientific evidence backing up its claims that requiring Covid passports are necessary to reopen the economy and society”.

Nor is that the only apparent hole in the plans. When Jeff Smith asked Zahawi an important and quite simple question – “how does he define a nightclub, as opposed to a late bar with a DJ playing music?” – the minister did not answer him. Chris Bryant likewise stressed that there is no legal definition of nightclub to build the policy on. Little wonder the industry anticipates huge disruption if it goes ahead.

Another absence from the Government’s case was any clear idea of when it would deem the need for vaccine passports to have passed. The closest Zahawi seemed to get was suggesting it would be when the UK is in “a place where I can stand here and say, hand on heart, that we have transitioned this virus and that it is no longer a pandemic”. But when is that? Who can say.

Questions like these are why proper legislative scrutiny of emergency coronavirus powers can be so important. It isn’t just about holding the Executive to account, it’s also a simple matter of trying to ensure proper rigour in policymaking. It is much harder to imagine the Government getting away with introducing a passport scheme with neither clear target businesses nor any exit conditions if MPs needed to vote for it.

In truth, it looks as though the main incentive for the policy is, as some other Cabinet ministers have hinted, to incentive young people to get jabbed. But the Government can’t openly say so, and as a result must resort to unconvincing bluster that doesn’t stand up in the House of Commons. Assailed from all sides, the plan seems likely to fall.

Nonetheless, perhaps the minority of politicos who actually enjoy clubbing should make the best of things whilst the going is good. Because if ministers do end up doing as Zahawi suggested and just shuttering the sector again, recent experience suggests that will generate far less backlash in Westminster than their ‘papers, please’ alternative.

Andrew RT Davies: Voters deserve a full, separate inquiry into the Welsh Government’s handling of Covid-19

7 Sep

Andrew RT Davies is the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and MS for South Wales Central.

Throughout the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Welsh Government has gone its own way on a number of crucial decisions.

Labour’s First Minister and his cabinet colleagues have consistently stressed that they are responsible for public health decisions in Wales, and that things are done differently here.

Every time the Prime Minister addressed the nation, Mark Drakeford would be at pains to tweet how the announcements would not apply to us in Wales.

To me, to outsiders, and to the public at large, these differences of approach often weren’t grounded in science and were instead simply cosmetic, and were implemented at times just for the sake of it.

However, as the speed of the vaccination rollout provides light at the end of the tunnel (made possible by the British Government’s decision to buy up vaccines early) and restrictions are eased, our attention is turning to how we can learn lessons from the pandemic through a public inquiry into the handling of Covid-19.

Strangely, the Welsh Government is unwilling to go their own way on this issue, instead arguing that their handling of the pandemic should be considered as part of a wider UK inquiry. They want the power but they do not want the scrutiny that comes with power in a democratic society.

There are of course cross-border implications of the way the UK and Welsh governments have handled the pandemic, and it is right that these implications are assessed and lessons learned, but that can be done on a British and a Welsh level.

The fact is decisions taken in Wales have had a dramatic impact on peoples’ lives, from whether they can see their loved ones, how far they can travel, and even what they can buy at their local supermarket. These decisions have had a unique impact on Wales and, regrettably, Wales has the highest Covid-19 death rate of any home nation.

It’s therefore imperative that the measures and slogans that were deployed in Wales are assessed thoroughly, and not left to make up just a footnote in a wider UK inquiry, which is what the First Minister wants to happen.

It may be more convenient for him and his team to have the Welsh Government spin of ‘keeping Wales safe’ as the narrative when we look back at the way they handed the pandemic, but the death rate means that that slogan does not ring true.

There are many successes of the Welsh Government’s handling of the pandemic, and they need to be recognised, but there will also be mistakes and moments where things should have been done differently. These mistakes can become valuable lessons, but only if the Welsh Government allows us to properly analyse them.

During March and April 2020, over 1,000 hospital patients were released into care homes without being tested for the virus. One care home owner near Port Talbot told Wales Online that they were under pressure to take patients from hospitals, even though care homes were concerned about the risk to residents of taking untested patients.

Only in late April did the Welsh Government decide to introduce testing for people being discharged from hospitals into a care setting and only in mid-May could care homes request testing. This was some time after England. These are the kinds of decisions that must be assessed in detail and not lost in a UK-wide inquiry.

We also learned that nearly a quarter of people who’ve died from coronavirus in Wales were infected while in hospital being treated for other conditions. This is despite the Welsh Government telling us in the first lockdown that lessons were being learned from major outbreaks in Welsh hospitals and that measures were being put in place to protect patients and staff. Then, in the second lockdown we saw greater numbers of hospital acquired infections.

Ministers have ducked scrutiny for too long, refusing to make announcements in the Welsh Parliament and instead opting for media briefings, and they are now refusing to have their actions put under the microscope.

There is support across the opposition benches in the Welsh Parliament for a Wales-only inquiry, and on Welsh Labour’s own backbenches. But although when the Welsh Conservatives tabled a motion in the Senedd calling for a Wales-only inquiry, the single Liberal Democrat Member of the Senedd voted against the motion. It is worth remembering that up until this May, a Liberal Democrat served as the Welsh Government’s education minister. Exam fiasco anyone?

There is also support across various charities and organisations from Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation to Medics 4 Mask Up Wales.

In recent days, the First Minister of Scotland announced that there would be a judge-led public inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. As a result, Wales is now the only nation on British mainland that has a government unwilling to subject itself to proper scrutiny of its actions.

I’ve since written to Drakeford asking him again to commission a Welsh inquiry, and warned that I fear if he does not do so, the Senedd and the Welsh Government will be brought into disrepute. I believe that my calls for a Welsh public inquiry will grow in support. It is only logical that these decisions taken in Wales are scrutinised at a Welsh level. The Welsh Government cannot continue to dodge effective scrutiny in this anti-democratic fashion, making a mockery of the devolved institution they profess to respect.

Ministers in the Welsh Government are always calling for more powers, most recently on policing and criminal justice. How can those calls be taken seriously when the Welsh Government is not prepared to be scrutinised on the big calls they’ve made during the Covid crisis.

Vaughan Gething, who was the Health Minister in Wales until recently, has said that he would have made different choices at different points throughout the pandemic. I think that is an honourable admission, but it does demonstrate that even the Welsh Government don’t think they got everything right over the course of the pandemic. We deserve to know which choices he regrets and how he would have done things differently.

With a Welsh public inquiry we can learn from these mistakes and be better prepared if we ever have to face another situation like this.

The race for booster jabs

3 Sep

With recess and the summer holidays, it seems that we have reached a relative moment of calm in the battle against the Coronavirus. The vaccine roll out has gone out well, and the Government will be pleased to see cases have dropped in England. It gives more weight to Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid’s hawkishness in lifting restrictions in July, of which the latter said: “there’s no going back”.

However, an announcement by the Health Secretary also shows that ministers have been quietly concerned about one issue: how long vaccine immunity lasts. He tweeted that “people with severely weakened immune systems” will now be offered a third Covid-19 vaccine, following the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). 

In some regards, this announcement is not a major surprise; Javid has previously said that a vaccine booster scheme is likely to take place in September, with the NHS asked to make preparations. 

But it’s also a reminder that we are not out of the woods yet, and gives an indication of the type of challenges the Government will face over the next few months, particularly as it tries to protect the NHS from a “Twindemic” (of flu and Covid).

The reason why booster jabs have become of huge importance is because of what’s happening in Israel. While it was the world leader in getting out jabs – and a huge cause for celebration – it has since seen infections rise rapidly, which has led to hospitalisations going up (the metric that UK ministers are most concerned about, lest the NHS becomes overwhelmed). 

Already there is growing pressure on the Government to get a booster programme sorted. Data from the ZOE COVID study supports the findings in Israel; it showed that “initial protection against infection a month after the second dose of the Pfizer vaccine was 88 per cent, while after five to six months this fell to 74 per cent.” 

For AstraZeneca “there was around 77 per cent protection a month after the second dose, falling to 67 per cent after four to five months.”

And the authors highlight that “We urgently need to make plans for vaccine boosters, and based on vaccine resources, decide if a strategy to vaccinate children is sensible”. 

With Javid confirming initial boosters, the question moves onto who else will get them. The JCVI has still not provided advice here (other than recommending the clinically vulnerable), as it’s no easy task to work out the categories and timings.

But Dr Raghib Ali, Clinical Epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Consultant in Acute Medicine at the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Trust, tells me that: “I’d be surprised if they don’t do boosters and flu vaccines at the same time for all over 50s; that’s my expectation.”

Jeremy Hunt has gone one step further and said that the UK should offer its additional jabs “not just to the clinically vulnerable, but to everyone”. In Israel, all over-30s are being encouraged to get booster doses, and it seems to be having an impact in bringing down cases.

Clearly there will be many debates, regardless of JCVI’s decisions, as to who should be eligible. Tony Blair, for instance, once called for teachers to be bumped up the vaccine queue – so will there be demands they get prioritised for boosters?

And there will also be ethical discussions about whether more developed nations should be having third vaccines – when others are completely uncovered. The World Health Organisation has warned against this. 

So while Javid said “there’s no going back”, we will see the same arguments come up again that featured in the first vaccine roll out – only with “Get the Booster> Save Lives” as the Government’s new mindset.

Emily Carver: This September, unions cannot be allowed to sabotage and obstruct children’s education again

1 Sep

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

The beginning of a new academic year is always an exciting time. Even more so this September, following months of stay-at-home mandates, Zoom lessons and cancelled sports, music and social events. It will come as a relief to many parents and pupils that a full reopening of schools is just around the corner.

Despite the progress of the vaccination roll-out, however, a significant – and vocal – minority of people still harbour anxieties over the imminent return. The potential for cases to rise among unvaccinated children, for the virus to spread to teachers, and the perceived threat of long Covid are among the oft-repeated arguments for schools to keep social distancing measures in place.

The point is less whether these concerns are justified (and my reading of the data is that they are unfounded), but rather the possibility that coordinated pushback from teaching unions or headteachers alone will be enough to scupper the Education Secretary’s plans to get schools back to normal.

The Government appears to be taking that threat seriously, and has launched a “back to school and college” campaign to reassure teachers, parents and pupils that schools are indeed safe environments. The PR drive, which began last week, includes social and digital advertising as well as wider engagement with the teaching profession.

The message from the Department for Education and the Department for Health is not to throw all caution to the wind. While the policy of bubbles – which saw entire classes of pupils sent home as a result of one positive case – has been scrapped.

Regular testing will continue, and children as young as 12 years old will actively be encouraged to get vaccinated (there has even been talk of vaccinations going ahead without parental consent). The door has been left wide open for a return to mask wearing for pupils in the event of “an increase in cases” – which seems inevitable.

The vast majority of parents want children back in a routine. In July, the Office for National Statistics found that almost nine in 10 adults (89 per cent) with children of school age said they were likely to send their children back to school this September. They’ve seen the destruction wreaked by months of disruption, are aware of the risks, and have come down on the side of schooling and social activities.

Perhaps the remaining 11 per cent are still excessively terrified of Coronavirus. Or perhaps they’ve been influenced by the obstructive, fear-mongering usual suspects for whom the importance of education comes far below the opportunity to contradict this government.

This week alone Nick Brook of the National Association of Head Teachers has accused the Government of being “naïve” and claimed that further disruption will be “inevitable”.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, who back in May was overheard referring to children as “mucky germ spreaders”, has suggested the Government should follow Scotland’s lead in maintaining restrictions. Bousted declared that the alternative was “hundreds of schools” being forced to reintroduce tougher Covid measures, including bubbles, “within weeks”.

This was no great surprise from those who trade in the language of fear and thinly-veiled threats. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe these groups have children’s best interests in mind. Pupils in England lost 58 per cent of their classroom time – the equivalent of 110 days of learning – between March last year and this April alone.

Researchers at Oxford University found that the policy of bubbles, which saw more than one million pupils in England out of lessons in just one week in July, were no more effective in preventing transmission of the virus than regular testing. Record numbers of children are being prescribed antidepressants after studies suggested that missed schooling may be behind higher rates of mental distress.

Though children are, thankfully, less likely to experience severe symptoms from Covid-19, they have been collateral damage in the Government’s battle to limit its spread. While it may be in the interests of union bosses and some teachers to maintain a safety-at-all-costs strategy, it certainly isn’t for the millions of pupils who will discover their education sits pretty far down the priority list – and the most deprived will continue to be hit the hardest. The very same children the unions claim to care about most.

This last point is important. We know that the pandemic has already hit reverse to the Government’s levelling up agenda when it comes to educational disparities. As a government-commissioned report found earlier this year, pupils in some parts of northern England were losing twice as much learning over the same periods as those in London.

While the unions may respond to this simply with calls for more investment in catch-up efforts (the Government has already announced over £3 billion) or claims that Tory cuts are to blame, they continue to push for the very restrictions that have led us to this situation – with little to no real scientific justification or sense of proportionality to the threat that children and teachers do or do not face.

On the media round yesterday morning, Robert Halfon, Chair of the Parliamentary Education Select Committee, said that schools need to go back, that children need to be kept in school and that government needs to enforce this across the board. Refreshing rhetoric – but how confident can we be that schools will stick to government guidance after it seemingly allowed the unions to sabotage and obstruct education throughout the pandemic?

All may not be lost. It has been reported that “tiger headmistress” Katharine Birbalsingh, founder of the high-achieving Michaela Community School in North London, is in the running to become the new boss of the social mobility commission, the Government body in charge of helping improve the life chances of disadvantaged children.

Seeking advice from experts like Birbalsingh, who have shown their ability to raise standards in deprived catchment areas, is certainly a step in the right direction if we are to catch up students who have lost out over the last year and a half.

Let’s hope the Government can capture some of her no-nonsense, common-sense spirit when it comes to the unions, stop pandering to their excessive demands, and finally allow school children the education they deserve.

Shabana Raman: It’s time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands

30 Aug

Shabana Raman is Director of Mathematics Improvement for the EKC Group, which is a family of six community-based colleges across East Kent. She is also the Chair of the Board of Trustees for the Invicta National Academy CIC.

Who remembers that YouGov poll of 944 Conservative members, showing that 55 per cent believed that Sajid Javid did not look or sound like a typical Conservative? Well, this resonates with me. I often get asked, “Why the Conservative Party? You are an immigrant in this country and they are anti-immigration!”

Secretly, I like being asked this question. It’s an opportunity for me to reiterate the core values of the party and conservatism which have shaped me as a person. I am a member of the party because I am an immigrant.

Being a Conservative means being responsible, hard-working, self-reliant, empowered, living within my means, respect for all, equality of opportunity for all, forward looking and compassionate. It’s my way of giving back to the country that welcomed me with open arms.

Growing up in a large and rather modest family in Mauritius with limited means, I was taught to aim high from a very young age and that education is the most powerful investment tool. I could dream of a better life but to achieve this, I would have to work hard and study – and sadly, sacrifice the latest Nintendo console for books and private tutors.

Today, I realise how fortunate I was to have had the support and guidance of my parents, and I want every child to have the same opportunities.

Hence why, during the first lockdown, I was disheartened to learn that pupils were learning through worksheets and web-based programmes instead of live, online lessons.

Friends shared their concerns over how little their children were doing during the day and how frustrating it was as a working parent to keep up with the numerous tasks set by schools. They were exasperated because they did not know how to help even if they wanted to.

Luckily, somewhere in West Kent, Anna Firth felt the same! Anna saw her son receiving a structured and robust education from his private school and on the other hand, her friend’s daughter, a grammar school pupil, was learning through worksheets and no teachers’ input. She felt so strongly about this that she decided to set up a free online school for pupils aged 7-15 years across Kent.

When I joined the team last year, there was no money or source of funding, no teachers and of course, no registered students. But we had a vision and under Anna’s leadership, we all rose to the challenge. A year on, as the Chair of the Board of Trustees, I am in awe of what the Invicta National Academy has achieved.

Thanks to generous donations and support from the Harry Oldfield Trust and other grants, such as the 2021 KCC Reconnect programme and an outstanding team of dedicated volunteers, the Invicta National Academy is now in its second year.

Last year, we delivered just under 40,000 pupil lessons over a five-week period to around 3,500 children around the UK. This year, under the leadership of Anna Firth and Caroline Platt, we are on track to deliver 85,000 pupil lessons over the same period to around 6,000 children around the UK – possibly far more, as we know some community groups are broadcasting our lessons to whole classes of children.

Bookings have also far outstripped last year. We now have over 122,000 lessons booked, over 5,500 every single day, compared to around 50,000 at the same time last year with no more than 2,500 booked for any one day.

This makes the academy, the largest online provider of FREE LIVE lessons of the country. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson and Laura Trott, Conservative MP for Sevenoaks, acknowledged our achievements in the House of Commons last Autumn. Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists called the team, “Educational heroes”!

This pandemic has undoubtedly brought to the surface the cracks in our education system. It has also exacerbated educational inequalities between the private and the public sector. The recent GCSE and A-levels results simply reiterated this disparity.

So, we must act fast! We must innovate to support our teaching professionals. It is time to close the attainment gap by putting power into parents’ hands, through a live, government-funded, out-of-school, teaching provision.

A free online academy using Invicta’s model, will not only help close the attainment gap but will also help with the disparity, providing a fair education system, serving pupils from all backgrounds. Invicta National Academy has contributed enormously towards levelling up education over the past two years and we need the support of the government to continue the job.

Our research has shown us that parents like and engage well with online learning because it is more convenient and flexible than traditional school-based learning. It is already well established that children with involved parents or other caregivers earn higher grades and test scores.

We know that parents are keen to support additional, out-of-school, supplementary education. The increasing reliance on expensive private tutors is worrying – a double-edged sword, helping wealthiest pupils succeed and further marginalising those whose parents cannot afford high tutoring fees. Like my parents, many are doing their best, despite financial constraints but there is still a large proportion of parents who cannot afford such exorbitant fees.

Therefore, we must seize this opportunity to invest in and modernise our education system to ensure that every child is treated equally and have the same opportunities. We need our first live, universal, free, interactive provision, accessible to every child, out of school. My professional experience has taught me that pre-recorded lessons are not the way forward. Pupils need engagement and interaction with their teachers and classmates to boost their academic progress and mental health.

As well as closing the existing education gap, a national online academy would be a backup provision in case the pandemic resurges. It would also ensure consistent access to qualified teachers delivering high quality lessons for the growing number of home schoolers, those without a suitable school placement and adults.

Margaret Thatcher said, “The younger generation doesn’t want equality and regimentation, but opportunity to shape their world while showing compassion to those in real need.”

Let’s work together to support parents inculcate in their children a positive attitude towards education and those vital core conservative values – like our parents did for us – so that they can grow up to be compassionate, hardworking and forward-looking adults, who can shape tomorrow’s Great Britain!

Ben Roback: Biden’s Afghan pull-out represents the rash decision making we had expected from Trump

25 Aug

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Who has failed the people of Afghanistan more spectacular, the United States or the G7? Both have made a compelling case of late.

When the G7 nations met in June under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership, the group issued a customary Communiqué. The urgent priorities were clear and indeed perfectly logical – the Covid recovery, vaccinations, and “building back better”.

The middle priorities of the lengthy to do list were at times perplexing. Cyber space and outer space, a “values-driven digital ecosystem for the common good that enhances prosperity in a way that is sustainable, inclusive, transparent and human-centric”, and open societies.

Eventually, at point 57, the G7 remembered Afghanistan:

“We call on all Afghan parties to reduce violence and agree on steps that enable the successful implementation of a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and to engage fully with the peace process. In Afghanistan, a sustainable, inclusive political settlement is the only way to achieve a just and durable peace that benefits all Afghans. We are determined to maintain our support for the Afghan government to address the country’s urgent security and humanitarian needs, and to help the people of Afghanistan, including women, young people and minority groups, as they seek to preserve hard-won rights and freedoms.”

With the benefit of political hindsight, was the Communiqué a clear sign that, just 10 weeks ago, the international community had such a miserly grasp of what was about to unfold despite the known deadline imposed by the United States?

Or being critical and almost certainly more honest, did it prove that the G7 countries were too caught up with their own agendas and so forgot about a weak, propped up government that was inevitably going to fall the moment the US initiated its withdrawal?

The chaotic scenes that have followed are a demonstrable failure of diplomacy and military intervention. In the first instance, it is the Afghan people and those who served in uniform and alongside them who will suffer the most.

The case for the White House: Putting an end to the ‘forever war’

There is no equivocation or discussion whatsoever about President Biden’s motivation for withdrawal. He wants to pull out American boots on the ground in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.

He does not want to become the fourth president to phone the grieving parent of a soldier lost in Kabul, Kunduz or Kandahar. In that respect, he aims to “succeed where others have failed” given President Bush started the Afghan war and it dogged the Obama and Trump administrations subsequently.

The human and financial costs illustrate the domestic rationale. Brown University’s Costs of War Project estimates that since 9/11, 7,057 US service members have been killed in war operations, whilst 30,1777 US service members have committed suicide.

The cost of caring for post-9/11 American war veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion by 2050. The only way to stop that tide of misery, the White House argues, is to get out of Afghanistan. But at what cost to Afghans and the United States’ reputation abroad?

The White House might also argue that, whilst the eyes of the world are on the Middle East, the Vice President is in the Far East. Kamala Harris completed a three-day trip to Singapore where she fired warning shots about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea.

Did anyone notice? The international community remains entirely focused on the more pressing problems in Afghanistan. At home, Parliament was recalled from its summer recess to discuss saving lives, not the Spratley Islands.

The case against the White House: Biden out-Trumps Trump and hangs the world out to dry

Could we have expected such a gargantuan gaffe from President Biden? After all, this was supposed to be the president who returned America to a state of relative normalcy after four years of Trumpian volatility in the pursuit of “America First”. On the world stage, Biden’s message to historic allies has been clear: “America is back”. Is it?

Biden cannot reasonably claim a lack of foreign policy experience. 36 years in the Senate having been elected before his 30th birthday. 12 years as Ranking Member or Chairman on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Eight years as Vice President, in which his White House bio now even boasts that “Biden played a pivotal role in shaping U.S. foreign policy and describes how he was point person for US diplomacy throughout the Western Hemisphere and led the effort to bring 150,000 troops home from Iraq.

The Afghan pull-out represents the kind of rash decision making devoid of any consultation with military allies that we had perhaps expected from President Trump. But for all of Trump’s bluster and wildly unpredictable rhetoric, he did not deliver the hammer blow to US foreign policy that many had expected.

It had started to look like death by a thousand paper cuts, but the capacity to do further incremental damage was limited by being a one-term president.

It is Biden, not Trump, who has shocked US allies. “Sleepy Joe” has sleep-walked the United States into its biggest foreign policy debacle for a generation.

From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”

Where does this leave Joe Biden and his administration’s relationship with the very same allies it sought to reassure after the Trump presidency? Johnson and Emanuel Macron led the call for President Biden to extend his self-imposed deadline of August 31 for the complete and total withdrawal of US forces.

At present, that has fallen on deaf ears trained solely on a domestic audience. News outlets report the president will not extend the deadline, agreeing with the Pentagon’s assessment. An imminent detailed report by Anthony Blinken, the Secretary of State. could yet reshape the decision.

The president has acknowledged that a completed withdrawal by the end of the month will be dependent upon the Taliban’s continued cooperation. The very same terror force the US entered Afghanistan to drive out is now needed to get Americans out of the country.

The administration has hinted at some flexibility. But each time Biden has spoken at the presidential podium since the fall of Kabul, he has doubled down on the decision with even greater tenacity. To alter course now would be political humiliation. From “mission accomplished” to “mission impossible”.

Perhaps the most striking remark the president has made since the Taliban takeover was when he said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building”. Really? Twenty years training and serving alongside the Afghan military. Two decades propping up a western-style government.

It begs the question: on what basis will the US intervene abroad now, if not to nationbuild? Just under 30,000 US troops remain stationed in South Korea, as the threat of war on the Korean peninsula looms perpetually.

But there is no nation building to be done in Seoul; will those troops be brough home next? Over 35,000 US troops are stationed in Germany; Chancellor Merkel needs no help maintaining her own democracy.

The Biden administration has rolled the international dice to take a domestic political gamble

The President, Defence Secretary, Secretary of State and National Security Adviser all clearly believe that most Americans do not care about the fate of Afghanistan or its people. According to YouGov America, at any one time only 0.5 per cent of Americans have ever though that the war in Afghanistan is a top issue facing the country.

They care more about a seemingly endless war in which too much American blood has been spilled. That is understandable with a domestic hat on, but deeply depressing when thinking globally.

Maybe Biden will be proven right. But at what expense? The fall of a nation into the hands of terrorists. It would be the most pyrrhic of all political victories.