Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs.
To his credit, the Prime Minister has stuck to his guns and refused to follow the devolved administrations and bring in tougher rules.
This is a rational decision. We know that Omicron has proven to be milder than previous variants, and despite a surge in the number of people in hospital “with Covid”, the speedy roll-out of booster jabs has kept the number of patients on ventilators low. Indeed, the latest data shows that the number of people in ICU has in fact fallen in recent weeks and it not tracking the rise seen last winter. While pressure on the NHS is severe, it is manageable.
Even Professor Neil Ferguson, who predicted last month that there could be 5,000 Omicron deaths a day (over three times the peak last January) has admitted that this wave is “substantially less severe” than previous ones, and that he is now “cautiously optimistic” Omicron cases are plateauing among 18 to 50-year-olds in London, the age group that has been driving the recent wave.
Yet, despite the fact we are so very far from worst case scenarios (and Ferguson’s best-case scenario), the Government has decided that it is proportionate to demand children wear masks throughout the entire school day. It is now once again “recommended” for all secondary school pupils in England to wear masks eight hours a day, with only a short break for lunch.
Politicians have argued that mask-wearing is a small price to pay to keep schools open. The opposition has also parroted this line. But they’re not paying the price. It is not office workers or MPs who are being forced to don a sweaty, germ-ridden mask all day.
And where is the evidence that mask-wearing will slow down the spread of the virus, keep schools open, or indeed save lives? Surely there must be an extremely high bar to justify a “recommendation” that will impact children’s learning and quality of life?
According to the Health Secretary, the guidance is based on two assessments. First, the evidence that Omicron, though milder, is highly infectious. And second, that an “observational” study of 123 schools undertaken by the Department of Education supports the use of face masks in schools – a study which is yet to be published.
One of the major criticisms from those sceptical of the Government’s approach is that it has failed to communicate or publish cost-benefit analyses for its ever-changing patchwork of Covid rules and regulations. You would have thought that, when seeking to intervene in children’s lives, the costs should be even more meticulously assessed?
Anyone who has ever worn a face mask will know they inhibit basic social interaction. This may not be as important in some professions, but in schools it is essential. Only in November, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam defended the Government’s decision not to mandate masks in schools. He said they can be “quite inhibitory to the natural expressions of learning in children, involving speech and facial expressions. It’s difficult for children in schools with face masks”. This will be worse for those with special educational needs, or for the growing number of children already suffering with their mental health. Has his view changed?
It seems the Government is more interested in being seen “to do something”, even if that means children are scapegoated. Indeed, in a meeting of the Education Select Committee meeting, children’s minister Will Quince admitted that there was “very limited evidence as to the efficacy of masks in educational settings”, but that mask mandates would be used as a “precautionary measure” nonetheless.
Considering this, it’s hard not to see this weakly-evidenced intervention as anything more than a political decision used to appease those who would rather keep schools closed. Certainly, if the decision were left up to the teachers’ unions and some councils, schools would remain shut to most pupils, and teaching would continue online-only.
We’ve heard in recent days from the NASUWT that remote learning is “the only sensible and credible option at this time to minimise the risks to those working in schools and to safeguard public health”. The leadership of the NEU has warned its members that it is not safe for them to return to school until mid-January at the earliest and has even provided template letters for their members to refuse to go back to work.
Then there’s the added problem of the Government’s own increasingly unworkable Covid self-isolation rules – rules which are wreaking havoc on our public services.
Not only are head teachers fearing up to a quarter of staff will be off work in January, but one in ten NHS workers are out of action, rail services have abandoned popular routes, and councils have scaled back rubbish collections. Economists have predicted that the impact of one million people now estimated to be self-isolating could knock several percentage points off GDP, amounting to billions of pounds.
If the Government is serious about children’s education, maintaining a functioning economy and finally learning to live with a virus that is clearly going nowhere, it must rethink these rules. It is clearly unsustainable for working people who are asymptomatic, or who are suffering only mild symptoms, to isolate for seven whole days. And if keeping schools open is the priority, sending teachers and children home for an arbitrary period if they test positive for a virus is no longer defensible. Especially when for most the symptoms are now akin to the common cold.
Considering Omicron is less severe than some feared, and the impact of staff absences is so high, the argument for shortening the isolation period has significantly strengthened. While it looks like the Government is continuing with its painful policy of encouraging the continuous testing of asymptomatic adult and children, it must at least reconsider its arbitrary isolation rules – reduce the number of days or better yet move to a test and release system to hasten teachers and children back into the classroom.
It’s time for the Government to weigh up the benefits and costs of its Covid policies – and leave children alone.