School reopenings. Public attitudes are more relaxed this time. But the battle is not over for the Government.

12 Nov

Throughout the Coronavirus crisis, one of the most difficult issues the Government has had to face is whether to keep schools open or not. During the first wave, a combination of backlash from teaching unions and parents hurriedly removing their children from classrooms arguably forced ministers’ hands into ordering closures around the country.

In September, after a summer in which the Department of Education was lambasted over an A Level grading system designed by Ofqual, millions of children finally made it back to school, albeit they were subjected to new measures with a view to stopping the spread of Coronavirus.

In spite of all the guidance – from staggered times to one-way systems to children having to socially distance – there are signs of more trouble to come. The National Education Union (NEU) is already pushing for schools to close during lockdown, a demand which has been endorsed by Andy Burnham, the Greater Manchester Mayor.

Labour, too, although currently supportive of keeping schools open, has indicated that schools should be at the front of the queue for mass testing after NHS and social care staff. It remains to be seen how much of an issue it will be if the Government does not go along with that idea.

Then there’s the Welsh Labour government, which has recently cancelled exams for 2021 – in a move that has prompted questions to be asked about why Number 10 has not done the same in anticipation of difficulties next year.

In short, in spite of the fact that schools are now open, it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good. Things might change very quickly, as we’ve seen happen during this crisis.

How concerned should the Government be about being pressured into fresh calls for a second round of school closures? What should it do in the interim by way of preparing a response to mounting demands of this nature?

The first thing to say is that public confidence in school openings seems to have changed considerably since the start of the year. As of November 2, the Children’s Commissioner found the attendance rate in England had gone from 17.5 per cent in July (the post-lockdown peak), to 80 per cent in September, with nine out of ten children now back, indicating that parents are relatively content with the current direction.

Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich and a member of the Education Select Committee, agrees that something has shifted, and believes unions are “going to struggle in their argument”, adding that “I think there’s much more of a sense that we should keep schools open” among the public.

Teachers, too – at least, by and large – appear to support reopenings. A survey from Teacher Tapp suggests that 46 per cent believe that schools should stay open.

But here comes the more troublesome part; 39 per cent supported closures for this lockdown, and that’s a sufficient constituency for the unions to be able to argue that they have a mandate to insist upon change. Given that there have been teaching strikes in France and elsewhere, the DfE cannot afford to be complacent.

One fear is that the unions will move away from the idea of closing schools, to suggesting a more nuanced approach, but one that would equally prove disruptive to students’ education.

The NEU, for example, has proposed for schools to move to a rota scheme, whereby students spend one week at school, followed by one week at home – hardly the easiest arrangement to roll out. Yet, it may have legs. According to the Teacher Tapp’s survey, this is a strategy teachers would prefer to be adopted should the current Covid outlook not improve.

Of course, if the current lockdown does not lead to better Covid statistics, it will be that much easier for unions to make the case that schools should no longer be fully open, but should close or move into rota systems, or something different.

There are other matters on which the unions might agitate. The possibility of a vaccine soon arriving has prompted questions to be asked as to why teachers are not being prioritised. Until then, unions might argue that schools should remain subject to tough restrictions.

The DfE has already made contingency plans – lest there be a move to more homeschooling. For instance, it has been working with mobile operators to provide temporary access for free additional data, which will give families the ability to use online educational resources at no cost. In normal times, of course, the cost of data could be prohibitively expensive.

The perennial problem has been that of communication. The Government, and in particular Gavin Williamson, has not been a forceful enough advocate of the case for keeping schools open. They have been on the defence throughout. 

The shame is that there is plenty of data to use to show why it matters to keep schools open. Some points to note:

  • The Office for National Statistics’ found that there were no differences in the rates of positive cases between teachers and other professionals working outside of the home between September 2 and October 16 (in which case, why should teachers be prioritised for mass testing above, say, a delivery driver?)
  • The Children’s Commissioner reports that “confirmed Covid cases at school remain very rare. There are just 8,000 (0.1%) pupils reported to be off school with a confirmed Covid case out of a total school population of 8.2 million”.
  • A recent study suggests that schools should have never shut in the first place. No doubt this criticism will get stronger as we get to see the impact that the original closures had on children.

Furthermore, the Children’s Commissioner points out that the average school sends home 62 pupils for every child who tests positive for Covid. Because of overreactions of this sort, it can lead to outbreaks at schools looking worse than they are.

In essence, it is crucial that the Government and DfE keep making the argument as strongly as possible that there should be no further closures at schools, nor any tinkering which might in any way disrupt children’s further future education. 

One possibility is that the Government sets up a task force, led by somebody like Kate Bingham, who can make the case for schools remaining open. 

Whichever way, the Government cannot afford to be complacent about this area. It needs to be proactive, on the offence and as noisy as the unions in its push for reopenings; everything it hasn’t been so far. Or else further trouble will be inevitable.

Andrew Gimson’s PMQs sketch: Johnson the heavyweight champion parades his new boxing gloves

11 Nov

Boris Johnson, the heavyweight champion, swaggered into the ring at noon for his weekly bout against Sir Keir Starmer.

Sir Keir is widely admired for his scientific approach to boxing. He sees his opponent’s weak spot, and with forensic accuracy lands punch after punch on it. Only the other day he knocked out Jeremy Corbyn.

Johnson is about twice the size of Corbyn, but British heavyweights often run to seed, and Sir Keir remains confident that this one will not last the distance.

And yet there was a spring in Johnson’s step which indicated that this week he saw Sir Keir as an irrelevance, a sideshow, a mere nit-picking pedant.

For Johnson the life-and-death battle is against Covid-19. It nearly killed him, and could yet kill his career.

But Johnson today brought good news to the House. He has “two big boxing gloves”, a vaccine and mass testing, with which he is going to “pummel” the virus “into submission”.

“Neither of them is capable of delivering a knock-out blow on its own,” he admitted, but together they will bring victory.

How confident he sounded. In the ring, that can be a fatal quality: a boxer lowers his guard for a moment, and down he goes.

But today, Sir Keir could not lay a glove on him. In vain he objected to the £670,000 of public money spent on PR consultants by the chair of the Government’s vaccine taskforce.

Johnson observed that some of that was to counter anti-vaxxers and persuade people to take part in trials, and chided Sir Keir for failing to “pay tribute” to the vaccine taskforce.

“Nobody’s attacking individuals,” Sir Keir said, which did not seem quite right, for here he was attacking Johnson.

All devotees of the noble art will wish Sir Keir well, and will hope that in the weeks to come he starts once more to land some blows.

The vaccine. The biggest breakthrough so far in the Covid-19 battle. But a logistical challenge unlike anything else.

10 Nov

In recent weeks, it’s been hard to feel optimistic about the UK’s battle with Covid-19. From the introduction of another lockdown, to talk of trying to “save Christmas”, to test and trace still experiencing difficulties, even the most cheerful among us might have struggled to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

But all of that changed yesterday when it was announced that a vaccine for the virus had proved successful in clinical trials. It has managed to protect over 90 per cent of the participants (43,500 in total) from becoming infected.

Although, as Boris Johnson has warned, it’s “very, very early days” and people cannot “rely on this news as a solution”, it cannot be stated enough what an astonishing achievement this is.

Indeed, when I last wrote about the vaccine in October for ConservativeHome, there were actually a lot of reasons to be doubtful that this would be a viable exit strategy. These reasons are broadly:

  • Other members of the Coronavirus family – SARS and MERS – do not have vaccines.
  • Smallpox is the only disease that has ever been fully eradicated by a vaccine.
  • Kate Bingham, the chairman of the UK Vaccine Taskforce, said that a Covid vaccine would probably have the same success rate as the flu jab (50 per cent). 
  • Patrick Vallance said we would be looking at a vaccine model similar to flu, and that the “notion of eliminating Covid is not right.”

Bingham and Vallance’s estimates were entirely realistic at the time. That’s why the vaccine development is so special; it is groundbreaking territory to create something with 90 per cent efficacy, never mind the fact it was developed in such a short period.

But as I wrote before, there will still be some major challenges ahead. Without further ado, here are some of the main takeaways from the vaccine news – and what the big questions ahead are for the Government and scientists.

How does the vaccine work?

It is a new type of vaccine, called an “RNA” vaccine. Although RNA vaccines have been researched in the past, they have never been approved before. It works by using a small part of the virus’s genetic code, which is then introduced to the body. The immune system then identifies this as foreign and begins to attack the virus.

How is it administered?

The vaccine is given in two doses, which are taken 21 to 28 days apart (the Government has ordered 40 million doses of it, which will give the UK the capacity to vaccinate 20 million people). 

It will be delivered at care homes (by NHS workers), at GP surgeries, pharmacies and “go-to” vaccination centres set up in places like sports halls. The goal is to have the vaccine administered seven days a week, and Matt Hancock has announced £150 million extra funding to help GPs carry out this huge task.

Who will get it first?

As age is the biggest risk factor for severe Covid-19, the first people to receive the vaccine will be care home residents and care home staff. Next down the list are likely to be health workers and hospital staff. From then on, people will be ranked by age; those under 50 will be bottom of the list. Children will not be vaccinated (although expect this to be contested, as some scientists are worried about the long-term effects of Covid).

When could it become available?

There have been conflicting estimates of when the vaccine will arrive, but the overall expected is either by the end of this year or early in 2021. Hancock has said that a mass roll out by Christmas is “absolutely a possibility”, although he expects it to come in the first part of next year. Emergency approval could mean the vaccine is with us as soon as November.

What are the challenges ahead?

There are a number of challenges for the Government, which can broadly be categorised as 1) Regulatory/ medical 2) Logistical and 3) Societal. 

To run through these in more detail:

Regulatory

The vaccine will first need to be considered by agencies around the world, and only with their approval can it be rolled out to the masses. This is why Johnson is trying to manage expectations about the vaccine – as this is quite a big hurdle to get through.

Medical

Then there are more considerations about the vaccine’s effectiveness, which will influence Governmental policy. Here are some questions that will be asked:

  • Does the vaccine stop people from catching and spreading the virus? (As well as stopping someone from getting ill).
  • How protective is the vaccine across different age groups? (There is missing data on this at the moment).
  • Do people need repeated doses of the vaccine? How long does its protective effect last for?
  • What is the potential for the virus to mutate?
  • What are the rare side effects of the vaccine? (We can only see this when much larger numbers of people take it).
  • How many people need to be immunised in order to return life back to normal?
  • How do we protect the 10 per cent, for whom the vaccine does not work? 
Logistical

Rolling the vaccine out is an operation of epic proportions; Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, formerly Hancock’s Special Advisor, said on Twitter that it would “require the biggest logistical effort since WW2”.

Getting two doses out to tens of millions of people is no walk in the park (to put it mildly). There are other logistical challenges, too; for instance, the vaccine needs to be moved from one station to another, without removing it from a temperature of -70C over four times. 

Societal

The last big headache is trying to manage who gets the vaccine. This is perhaps the most complicated aspect of this exit strategy, as the Government will have to deal with two divides in society; people who want the vaccine, but aren’t on the priority list (some teachers, for instance, are reported as wanting to be prioritised), and those who do not want a vaccine at all. And that’s before we get to the global demand for vaccines.

It’s not clear how many people need to be vaccinated in the UK to get us out of more lockdowns, as it’s ultimately contingent on some of the medical considerations mentioned above. But Bingham has previously said that 30 million out of the 67 million people who live in Britain would get it.

The other difficult aspect is managing what happens before we get the vaccine (if it’s approved). The Government is conscious that people can let their guard down with good news, and it remains to be seen how the prospect of a vaccine effects compliance over the next couple of months. The Government knows it must keep expectations low, in case there isn’t regulatory approval for the vaccine – and it needs to focus more on other strategies.

But whatever happens, it’s still an incredibly exciting week, particularly as this is not the only vaccine on the go. There are 11 vaccines currently in the final stages of testing, and Pfizer and BioNtech have the manufacturing capacity for 1.3 billion doses of their vaccine by next year. All in all, “hoping for the best but planning for the worst” is the mantra Johnson cited early on in the crisis, and – through the vaccine news – these words will carry through.

Biden is a conservative – succeeding not because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned

10 Nov

Joe Biden is a conservative. Amid anxious speculation about what kind of a President he will turn out to be, this crucial point has often been overlooked.

For some, the lower-case “c” in conservative will be unsatisfying. But for many American voters it was and is profoundly reassuring.

It would be idle to pretend we can know with precision how far those Republicans who voted for Biden were repelled by the uncouth behaviour of Donald Trump, and how far they were attracted, or reassured, by Biden’s conservative demeanour.

The two motives are not mutually exclusive: for most of these voters, both were in operation.

Trump is a reality TV star who has again and again yielded to his own worst instincts, and for this reason his performances possess a certain horrific authenticity. No one, surely, could behave that badly without being in some way genuine.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign against him in 2016 failed in part because she sounded so hypocritical. For while she claimed to be on the side of ordinary Americans, anyone could see she preferred the company of her billionaire friends in the Hamptons. Her grand liberal condescension was for many voters at least as off-putting as Trump’s unabashed sleaziness.

Biden’s campaign has succeeded, not exactly because he is old, but because he is old-fashioned – a manner which comes more easily and naturally when one has lived for a long time, so his advanced age is not necessarily the drawback which the media assume it to be.

He takes trouble with ordinary Americans: his courtesy and warmth of feeling are authentic, attested by among others the people he got to know on his 8,200 train journeys between Washington and Delaware, during which he travelled a total of over two million miles.

That is a conservative thing to do. He found a routine, a rhythm, which suited him, and he stuck to it. Each night he went home, and he speaks of home with unfeigned emotion.

Loyalty to existing institutions is a conservative characteristic. Biden is loyal to his family and his church, and to a certain idea of his country, expressed in his victory speech:

“I pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify, who doesn’t see red states and blue states, but the United States.”

George Washington, President from 1789-97, would have agreed with this. Washington was a gentleman of the 18th century who refused to turn himself into a party politician, and in his Farewell Address delivered this solemn warning to his compatriots:

“I have already intimated to you the danger of Parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on Geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the Spirit of Party, generally…

“The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries, which result, gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual: and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of Public Liberty…

“It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which find a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions…”

Many Americans have feared in recent years that “the spirit of revenge natural to party dissension” would end by tearing the country apart, with each side justifying its excesses by pointing to the excesses of the other.

Biden offers himself as the President who can avert this disaster by governing as an American, and not just as the leader of a faction.

This idea of rising above faction is old-fashioned, but America is an old-fashioned country, with attitudes on such matters as the right to bear arms which are no longer found in Europe.

It is the oldest republic in the world, an eighteenth-century nation with deep roots in the English common law and a proper reverence for Magna Carta, a document more honoured now in Washington than it is in Westminster.

James Madison and the other drafters of the American Constitution did not only look to England. They pored over the history of the Roman Republic as they sought to devise a form of government which would endure.

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary,” Madison wrote in The Federalist Papers, but since men are not angels, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition” by means of a system of checks and balances.

And this is what has happened. The system does not work perfectly – no system can – but neither Trump nor any of his predecessors has attained the despotic power against which Washington delivered his solemn warning.

In March this year (though so much has happened since that it seems longer ago) I brought out a volume called Gimson’s Presidents: Brief Lives from Washington to Trump. 

While writing it, one could not help but notice that many of the presidents were tawdry, third-rate figures, a point from which the undoubted greatness of a handful of them can distract one.

And yet the republic has endured, and has shown a capacity, albeit at sometimes terrible cost, to correct its own most grievous faults.

Biden is already coming under fire from various factionalists on the Left of his own party, who want him to adopt their partisan opinions.

He knew this would happen, so took the precaution of declaring in his victory speech:

“Folks, I’m a proud Democrat, but I will govern as an American President.”

In that speech, he quoted from the Bible, in its best and most traditional version: yet more evidence of his own conservatism, and his determination to appeal to the conservatism of millions of Americans who are fed up with the party-political dogfight, and want a President who will put the national interest first.

During his 36 years in the Senate (1973-2009) Biden generally sought to work with Republicans, rather than pick fights with them.

He will now draw on that experience. He is not a man of brilliant intellectual gifts – few presidents are – and he is also a dull speaker, who if anything will sound duller as he becomes better known.

But unlike Trump, who in 2016 reaped the electoral reward of being an angry outsider, Biden is trusted in Washington, knows who everyone is, is supported by a tried and tested team of advisers who have been with him a long time, and has already appointed a panel of public health experts to advise him how to tackle the pandemic with an altogether unTrumpian seriousness.

Biden intends to draw on the rich American tradition of pragmatic, unglamorous, bipartisan work. And since to work within a tradition, rather than attempt to make things up from first principles, is yet another conservative characteristic, conservatives could well end up approving of President Biden.