Monday 18 May 2020

Watching the collapse in slow motion

The debate about when schools should re-open highlights yet again that the key to leadership during a crisis is honesty and transparency. Parents and teachers want to be as certain as they can be that both they and the children will be safe, and they are naturally seeking that reassurance from government. The way in which not only Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also an increasing number of local authorities in England itself, are declining to accept assurances from a government which seems to have alighted on an entirely arbitrary date of 1st June and turned it into some sort of macho test of its own strength and determination indicates the extent to which people feel that they cannot trust the word of ministers. What started out as an aspiration to re-open schools starting on 1st June has turned – in the way in which arbitrary goals are regularly treated by this government – into a target which must be met, even if that involves taking on and traducing teachers, unions, parents and local authorities.
In terms of building the necessary trust, Gove’s performance yesterday, in which he managed both to ‘guarantee’ the safety of all concerned and also state that no-one could be certain of absolute safety didn’t help. He was right the second time, of course – there can never be any guarantee, the decision necessarily involves weighing up the risks. But the ease with which the initial lie tripped off his tongue goes to the heart of the growing lack of faith in the government – it seems that lying is invariably the first option, and that honesty has to be prised out slowly and laboriously afterwards.
Last week, we also discovered that the UK’s most senior civil servant, the Cabinet Secretary, had been ill with coronavirus, and that a deliberate decision had been taken not to tell the public because, apparently, it was regarded as being news too sensitive for the public to handle. Why they thought that we could handle the illness of the PM and several others around him but not that of the Cabinet Secretary remains a mystery. But what I really don’t understand is why no-one realised that it was bound to come out at some point, and that keeping it secret wouldn’t exactly build confidence. And also why no-one seems even to have considered the possibility that the public at large might start to wonder ‘if they are keeping something as minor as that back so as not to panic us, what else aren’t they telling us?’ The question is such an obvious one – only people with some sort of bunker mentality could seriously have failed to understand, even for a moment, that keeping this secret might just turn out to be a really bad idea. But no, they went on to compound the error by denying that he was ill and claiming that he was working normally.
I’m glad that I’m not a parent of a school age child in England, having to make the decision as to whether to keep my child home from school on the basis of information the accuracy of which is unclear and which is being delivered by proven liars, and I feel sorry for those who are in that situation. And I’m glad that the Welsh government is taking a more cautious approach. It’s no surprise that the level of confidence in the English PM and his government has plummeted since his car crash speech last weekend – we seem to be watching a government implode in slow motion under the weight of its own dissembling. The surprise is that they don’t even seem to understand what is happening or why and simply respond by doubling down on the lies. There will be, of course, a solid base of Tory supporters who will stick with their man come what may, although even some of those must surely be struggling to defend the lies with a straight face. But parents of school age children, relatives of residents of care homes, friends and family of front-line carers and health workers – these aren’t negligible sections of the electorate to be carelessly gambling with their support. I even find myself wondering whether he’s deliberately testing the validity of the Trump doctrine about shooting someone not being enough for him to lose support. The danger is that Trump might actually have been right about that.


Spirit of BME said...

I think Mickey Gove`s statement of `guarantee ‘or the teachers Union of `safe` should be clarified and explained, in that in that there is no such thing in life as 100% safe and everything is a trade-off. When teachers get into their car to go to work ,it`s not 100% safe ,if they wanted to be safe you would have to buy a tank, but that would not be efficient ,so trade- offs are something we live with and have to make everything work.
However, the teachers have been off on full pay (not furloughed) so why on earth should they want to go back until the end of summer? There is no danger of a conflict between the Labour/Liberal coalition as they have no political will set an early return as they are a captured agency of the academic intuitions.
Back in the real-world executive pay is being cut by 20%, which a simple decision to make as the market projection for their services or goods, will not produce the income to sustain it. Perhaps in an act of solidarity with the wealth creating sector, the executive management like head teachers and above, should also get their pay cut by 20%- but don`t hold your breath with that one.

John Dixon said...

"...there is no such thing in life as 100% safe and everything is a trade-off" Precisely, and had Gove said that voluntarily at the outset rather than having it dragged out of him after foolishly 'guaranteeing' the safety of all, he might have helped boost rather than undermine confidence in the government and its members.

But if you and I can agree on that, it follows that the debate on whether and when schools should re-open becomes a question of analysing probabilities and risks, putting in place mitigating measures, and reaching agreement on what level of risk is 'acceptable' given that there is risk in everything. I'm not sure how you think that joining in the tabloid approach to attacking teachers contributes to that.

Spirit of BME said...

I my opinion schools should never have closed, but we are, where we are.
In the lethal Asian flu endemic in 1957, I was in school and all I remember is that the Headmaster announced that he had a letter from the council health office asking us to wash our hands-on arrival and before we go home- that was it, everything else went on as normal.
The data on this virus is all over the place, but I read that hospital deaths in England only two children under 15 died with the 19.That makes the odds as one in 5.3 million ,the data on children under 10 infecting adults, a report by WHO and China ,they found none.
Returning children to school, the one size fits-all rules will not work, as there is a healthy amount of chaos in their behaviour and on these odds distance rule should not apply, as we will be bringing them up in a type of North Korea kindergarten, which will be very damaging to their development..
The opening should be the responsibility of local councils, as if they get it wrong, they can be dismissed by the electorate and health experts in Cardiff cannot.
Lastly, I have an extended family in the teaching business and I have been shocked by most of their views as to when schools should start. However, I am advised that I am out of date and teaching is a job like any other. Ah, well.

John Dixon said...


I was also in school in 1957, although I have no memory of that pandemic. What we know, however, is that around 9 million people were infected in the UK, of whom around 33,000 died (precise figures are somewhat elusive). We don't know how many have been infected with Covid-19 in the UK to date - the 'official' figures show around 250,000, but I suspect that the real number is probably 3 or 4 times that. The 'official' death toll is 36,000, but I suspect that the real total is by now more than 60,000 - the FT is giving a figure of 62,000 from their calculations, I understand. However you look at the numbers, that makes it considerably more deadly than the 1957 flu pandemic in the UK. It makes a comparison of limited value.

I agree that some early studies have suggested that children are less likely to infect others, although I'm also aware that these findings are disputed by other researchers. One of the problems at the moment is that we can all find a study or report somewhere which supports our own particular views (the perils of the internet!), but the reliability of some of those reports is, to put it mildly, questionable. The real question - and this goes back to our earlier discussion - is about what weighting to apply to the various reports and factors, and what level of risk we deem to be 'acceptable', given that 'zero risk' is unattainable.

The supplementary question is the one to which you allude - who takes the decision? I instinctively agree with your proposition that one-size-fits-all is the wrong approach, and that local decision-making is to be preferred. I'm more than a little less comfortable with the idea that 'they can be voted out if they get it wrong' is an adequate protection; it certainly does not protect those who will have died as a result of the decision-makers having got it wrong.

Having said that, I don't have a simple easy solution (indeed, anyone who says that he or she does in the light of a complex and still-developing problem is someone whose advice is probably best disregarded), but that, in a sense, is one of the points that I have been trying to make in recent posts. We need a proper informed discussion and those taking the decisions need to be open and honest about what the options are and what trade-offs they are making. Merely insisting that they are right and know what they're doing (when they patently aren't and don't) is a recipe for continued confusion and distrust.