The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

The case for “doing a Sweden” runs out of steam

21 Dec

From the start of the Coronavirus crisis, Sweden’s approach to managing the virus has sparked huge debate. While its Nordic neighbours, and many others, enforced strict lockdowns, Sweden took a more libertarian route, leaving most schools, businesses and restaurants open throughout the pandemic.

Sweden soon became known as an “experiment” in whether lockdowns work, with Covid “hawks” and “doves” closely monitoring it over the last year to see who would be proved right. Did the experiment pay off? Unfortunately, the answer now seems to be no.

Sweden has struggled immensely with the pressures of the second wave, with one Stockholm region recently reporting that 99 per cent of its intensive care beds were full, and the country recording its highest new case count yet (9,659) last Thursday. Sweden has had more deaths than the rest of Nordic countries combined (8,000 have died in Sweden compared to 400 in Norway), and even its King, Carl XVI Gustaf, claimed it had “failed” to manage Coronavirus.

The severity of the situation is most obvious from the fact that Stefan Löfven, Sweden’s Prime Minister, has increasingly intervened on pandemic policy. In other countries, having a leader do this would not be such a strange occurrence, but the Swedish Public Health Agency typically presides over such decisions. Löfven’s intervention has thus been taken as a sign he disapproves of its past strategy (as does the public – apparently – with support for Anders Tegnell, Sweden’s leading epidemiologist, dropping by 13 points in a recent poll, and support for its public health agency dropping from 68 per cent in October to 52 per cent.).

On Friday, Löfven announced the strictest measures yet for Sweden, with the government lowering the limit at restaurants to four people per group and banning alcohol sales past 8pm. It has also asked citizens to wear face masks on public transport at certain times.

The measures still show Sweden cares greatly about freedom. It has not made face masks compulsory, for instance, and shops are responsible for deciding the number of people who can enter them at one time. Unlike in other parts of the world, there are no penalties for breaking the recommendations, and Löfven also still believes full lockdown was not the right choice for the country. However, he has said that if these measures do not have the planned effect, “the government will also plan to close those businesses”, so it remains to be seen how far Sweden will venture from its original Covid response.

Whatever the case, it is clear that there will be big implications for Sweden in the future in terms of its governance, with Tegnell said to be increasingly sidelined. Does the government want to continue letting the Public Health Agency take charge of health policy after the events of this year?

Some of the Sweden “experiment” is more complex than is sometimes made out. It still has a lower death rate than other countries, a higher population to the Nordic countries it is frequently compared with, and its GDP has not been as badly hit as other nations’, which will in turn have an impact on health.

But it’s still clear that the case for “doing a Sweden” will struggle after this point. While the Covid Recovery Group hasn’t called for a “Sweden” exactly, it has been deeply sceptical about the tiered system. With the current second wave situation, and Löfven’s intervention, it will find its arguments for reopening the economy increasingly hard to make. Not even the country that invented the “anti-lockdown” policy can now sell this approach.

James Frayne: Public support for the Government appears to have dropped – but not when it comes to individual policies

4 Aug

The conventional wisdom on the polling is the Government is fast losing public support on its handling of the Coronavirus crisis – and therefore that the Government is handling the crisis badly in reality.

While it’s true that the polls have moved against the Government from the early days of the crisis when approval ratings were sky high, the story isn’t as simple as the public turning against the Government.

Interestingly, on individual policy announcements, for example the Northern lockdown, public support remains high. The public back the Government on specifics, but not in the round. So what’s happening?

Let’s begin by looking at the polling on general Government popularity measures. The picture is clear: the public has become less sympathetic over time.

  • ConservativeHome’s newly released panel survey showed the PM’s popularity has slipped for the third month in a row.
  • YouGov’s tracker on perceptions of the Government’s handling of the crisis has shown a steady decline since the Spring.
  • Opinium’s tracker shows the same, with their most recent figures showing a net disapproval rating of -15. They also show a relatively narrow lead over Labour in the voting intention tracker.
  • A new study by Ipsos-Mori and KCL revealed an array of metrics showing public concern about the way the pandemic has been handled.

But now let’s look at the data on individual policies.

  • People appear to very strongly support the Government banning separate households meeting indoors in those parts of the country where the infection rate has risen.
  • People appear to strongly support the Government’s announcement that those with Coronavirus symptoms should now self-quarantine for 10 days rather than seven.
  • The majority of the public appears to be unsympathetic to those British people that went to Spain and got caught out by the demand to self-quarantine on their return – a decision for which the Government received enormous criticism.
  • People also appear to support restaurants having to show calorie counts on their menus – a suggestion the Government was said to be considering as part of No 10’s new focus on obesity. (I actually think this would drop like a stone when faced with a counter argument on burdensome regulations during a pandemic, but that’s another conversation).
  • The polls show the public support the requirement to wear masks in supermarkets and they want the supermarkets themselves to be tougher on compliance, presumably by refusing entry to those without masks or refusing service at the till.
  • The use of face masks has surged dramatically more generally.

What accounts for these stark differences, where the Government is losing support but where the public actually back its main policy announcements? There are a number of reasons why this might be the case.

First, it’s possible the public actually still favour extremely tough measures overall – much tougher than the Government is prepared to take. It’s possible they still favour what amounts to a near full-lockdown and, therefore, the support they give to specific policies is almost given in exasperation – as if to say: “of course they should do this, why haven’t they done so before?”

I think this is very likely the case among older and more affluent people, where the mix of fear and an ability to work from home and maintain their living standards means they take a very safety first approach. It might still be the case for many others.

As I’ve written before, the Government’s reputation has also ultimately been perversely damaged by the huge success of the furlough scheme. The fact that it worked smoothly and held up most people’s earnings meant it acted like morphine; it made people think the pandemic was almost exclusively a health crisis, not an economic one.

It made many think that the lockdown was a perfectly acceptable way to spend several weeks – not something that was crippling the economy. As such, many people believed, and still do, that the lockdown should keep going indefinitely. Were they exposed to job losses and higher taxes, they’d likely change their minds on this quickly.

In summary, it’s possible the Government is being punished for opening up the country too early.

Second, it’s possible that the little minorities of people who oppose Government action on, say, increasing the quarantine, actually all mount up to a majority overall, which brings down Government support.

So, a significant minority in the North of England might be angry about the new lockdown there, while a significant minority of holidaymakers might be angry about the new quarantine demands, and so on. In the end, the angry and annoyed on one issue accumulate to a large number. It’s as if everyone’s annoyed, but for different reasons. There’s also clearly just generally a virus fatigue: “when will it ever end?”

Third, we have to look at the role of Government communications. The Government has been accused of giving out mixed messages in recent weeks – most recently, encouraging people to go to restaurants while also telling people to stay apart and wear masks, or encouraging people to go to restaurants while telling them to eat healthily.

The Government’s view appears to be that they need a degree of ambiguity – yes, to encourage people to return to some form of normality, while always reminding them to take care because the virus hasn’t gone away. I have sympathy with this because the medium-term future is so uncertain and because the Government is balancing outrageously complex and high-stakes issues.

In truth, no one really knows what’s going to happen. However, the fact remains that their messages and stated priorities can look contradictory – and this in turn can make them look disorganised, which in turn can eat into their reputation for competence.

Fourth, it looks like party politics is returning to the public mind slowly. The gaps between Conservative and Labour voters on questions of competence and general handling reveal huge differences in opinion.

In short, Labour voters think the Government has done a bad job, even if they give support to specific policy ideas, while Conservative voters are cutting the Government slack. If Starmer starts drawing a greater contrast between Conservative and Labour policies – most obviously over economic recovery policies – we should expect these differences to become starker.

Where will the polls go? It’s hard to say. If there’s another serious spike in cases and another health emergency develops, it’s possible that people will again rally behind the Government for doing a difficult job in difficult circumstances.

But I suspect, in reality, now people have become accustomed to the habits and language of the pandemic, and now Labour has a basically competent leader, that the Government’s approval ratings will return to where you’d expect a Government that has been in power for a long time to be – with a divided country and a very large number of disgruntled voters.

Face mask policies abroad. How do they compare to the UK’s rules?

15 Jul

After weeks of pressure and indecision, yesterday the Government announced that face coverings will be mandatory in shops and supermarkets from July 24, with a fine of up to £100 for anyone who doesn’t comply.

As often in the Coronavirus crisis, the UK has been accused of being an outlier in its approach to controlling the virus. Without further ado, ConservativeHome takes a look at how its face mask policy compares to other countries’.

Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Throughout the pandemic, the devolved administrations have had different strategies in managing Covid-19, with face coverings being one area of disagreement. In Scotland, people have had to wear them in shops since July 10, with fines if they do not follow the rules.

In Wales and Northern Ireland, on the other hand, shoppers are not required to wear face masks, but it is understood that this situation is under review.

France

The country requires anyone over the age of 11 years to wear face masks, with travellers who fail to comply charged up to €135 (£121). Many supermarkets and shops now ask customers to wear them, but they will be made compulsory in all enclosed public spaces from August 1 – with the aforementioned fine applicable to anyone who violates the rules.

Germany

Face coverings in the country have been mandated on public transport and in shops since April 27, with Berlin and Schleswig-Holstein the last regions to enforce compulsory masks on April 29. In the German state of Thuringia, masks are required in the workplace. Very young children are exempt from the rules, but the age at which they are mandated to wear a mask differs by state.

Italy

People have been required to wear masks in specific enclosed spaces, such as restaurants, shops and public transport, since May 4. In restaurants, they must be worn when people enter the venue and any time they leave their table. Several regional authorities, such as Lombardy and Piedmont, have made masks compulsory in all public spaces.

Greece

Everyone has to wear masks on public transport and they are compulsory in hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as in lifts. Greece also made them compulsory in shops, but the measures have since been relaxed, although shop staff are still required to wear them.

Spain

Face masks are mandatory for anyone over the age of six if they’re not able to keep the required social distance of 1.5 metres. Some regional authorities have implemented tougher rules in regards to face coverings, so that they are required in public regardless of social distancing measures.

Catalonia

After a surge of new Coronavirus cases in Spain’s autonomous region, face masks are mandatory in public for anyone aged over five. People who are caught without one, even if they engage in social distancing, can be charged €100 (£90).

Turkey

Face masks are compulsory in crowded places, such as markets, hairdressers and barber shops, as well as public transport. Bodrum, Marmaris and Istanbul, some of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations, have made masks compulsory at all times outside of the home, such as on beaches, in parks and in restaurants.

East Asia

For many countries in Asia, such as mainland China, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan, there is a strong culture of mask wearing, partly as a result of previous health crises.

China has forced its citizens to wear masks in all public spaces since the beginning of the Coronavirus outbreak last year, and anyone who doesn’t comply can be fined, banned from subways shops, offices and banks, or even arrested.

In Singapore, it’s compulsory to wear face masks outside or be fined around £170.

And in Taiwan masks are seen as a form of social etiquette – used to protect others while out and about. Its government has been one of the most proactive at obtaining masks during the Covid-19 crisis, partly due to lessons from the Sars outbreak.

India

India, which has almost 880,000 cases of Coronavirus, and over 23,000 fatalities, has recently made face masks compulsory to wear out and about in most big cities. The police now hand out fines of 500-rupee (£5.29) for violations.

Russia

Due to the country’s nine time zones, there are different rules on face masks for different destinations. Moscow has mandatory guidelines on wearing masks and gloves in its public spaces, although people are only recommended to wear these on the streets. Police also enforce mask wearing in shops and public transport.