Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Hoping for the best isn't good enough


There was a time when a political leader who declared one thing to be true at breakfast time and then said the opposite by tea-time was the preserve of dystopian novels, but in Johnsonian Britain it’s the new normal. And despite him having done the same thing several times already, his loyal sycophants are still gullible enough to defend his first position all morning and afternoon before defending the second all evening. They seem incapable of even realising that they’re being played. The latest iteration of this was on Monday over schools in England, when they were mostly required to open on Monday (having been threatened with legal action just a fortnight earlier if they did not do so), only to be told at the end of the day that they would then be required to shut for at least a month.

In justifying his pivot, he repeated his claim that schools are basically safe, because children are unlikely to suffer serious illness as a result of catching the virus but added what was apparently, to him at least, an entirely new factor – namely that spreading the virus amongst children, even if they showed suffered few or no symptoms, risked transmitting it to their families. Who’d have thought it? Apart, that is, from the scientific community who’d been warning him of this for weeks, and anyone who is able to apply very simple logic to the way in which the autumn uptick in cases began shortly after the September return to schools. In fairness, neither of those categories can reasonably be applied to Johnson, and expecting him to read or understand briefing papers which are not in Latin or Greek and do not heap unmitigated praise upon him is wholly unrealistic.

The question to be asked is not whether schools are ‘safe’ for learners and teachers, it is whether keeping schools open threatens the safety of the wider community. The problem is not the risk to children, which is low (although not zero) or even to teachers which is also low (albeit higher than the risk to children): it is that mixing infectious but asymptomatic children with other children can – and clearly does – spread the virus from one family to another outside the school setting. And, despite the PM’s posturing, the obvious didn’t only become so at lunch time on Monday.

It isn’t only the English Government which labours under a rather narrow definition of what is involved in making schools safe, however. Yesterday, both of Wales’ main opposition parties (Plaid and the Tories), called for the Welsh government to give priority to teachers for vaccination in order to reopen schools quickly. But if the problem is the way in which the virus spreads amongst the children, vaccinating the teachers is never going to be the solution. That’s not to argue that teachers shouldn’t be given priority – if we, as a society, expect people to continue working in a potentially hazardous environment, then it is reasonable to give them as much protection as possible. It’s simply that doing that doesn’t solve the real problem. (And whilst it’s easy enough to call for added priority for one group, it’s a lot harder to decide which group should be deprioritised as a result, despite that being the inevitable consequence of limited availability. No surprise that neither party seemed to be in any rush to go near that one.)

Given the need to be seen to be offering something, it’s understandable why politicians would seize on that which is (comparatively) easy to do, not least because addressing the real problem is far from being straightforward. If we knew that vaccinating people stopped transmission and infection as well as minimising the effects of infection, then vaccinating pupils as well as teachers would be a good starting point. But there is, as yet, no evidence to support that proposition – which means that we could vaccinate every child and every teacher in every school and have no impact whatsoever on transmission within schools. That leaves only two currently viable options. The first is to keep schools closed for as long as is necessary to ensure that the virus is at least as controlled as it was following the first lockdown (and then repeating the process as and when necessary), and the second is to assume that this is going to be a long haul and invest time, effort, and money in setting up alternative approaches to educating children, approaches which it is already clear would be required for at least a year, and possibly longer. The politicians currently in power – in Cardiff as in London – seem to be showing no appetite for either of those approaches, with all effort going instead into finding ways of returning schools to something near normal as soon as possible.

It might, to the extent that we are prepared to give people the benefit of any doubt, be forgivable that an assumption was made after the first lockdown that the situation was under control and education could be resumed in September. But there is no excuse for the time lost since the virus started to take hold again in September for the lack of planning and preparation for an extended period of school closures. And there is even less excuse for the time still being lost today as the politicians continue to seek a quick fix instead of looking for longer term alternatives. “Learning online” is a major part of the answer, but in itself is oversimplistic, since it ignores the lack of equity of access let alone facilities in the home. Jeremy Corbyn’s widely mocked election policy of superfast broadband connections for all looks even more sensible now than it did to some of us at the time, but it cannot be delivered in days or weeks and we also need equipment and facilities in the home. And how do we ensure direct interaction between teachers and pupils? Should teachers give more of their time in smaller groups to the most disadvantaged, rather than simply teaching online groups of 30 or sending out work packs? None of these are easy questions, and it would be naïve to expect instant answers. But the longer we go without asking the questions, the more we are effectively depending on a vague hope that things are going to improve as if by magic. That may be a fair summary of Johnson’s approach for England, but it should not be the approach in Wales. We can and should do better than that.


dafis said...

The inability to think beyond an immediate step is alarming to say the least. Much of the "science" on transmission is common to all sorts of infections,and having accumulated 9 months working experience you'd think that those spearheading the campaign to tackle Covid would now be proceeding with some awareness that thinking things through several possible steps is a far more "grown up" way of tackling their jobs. However the juveniles in charge - politicians - are much like spoilt children seeking instant gratification without any real depth of consideration for what comes after. In that respect politicians are no different to the public they castigate for attending house parties or gathering in numbers when the advice is clearly to the contrary. Now we have some vaccines and it will be very difficult to prevent yet another wave of self destruction as it will be seen as a total solution long before its benefits become widespread. Given a few bottlenecks in the supply chain and there will be the usual round of new flannel from Boris and Co.

Most of 2021 will be wasted by incompetent government on the one hand and incontinent public on the other. Whoopee!!

Spirit of BME said...

You are right there is so much not known or what is known is not being projected and the message is either diluted or changed for propaganda purposes throughout the UK and Wales.
Professor Ferguson – the Bonking Boffin in an attempt to relaunch himself said something rather interesting in the Times recently. He stated that of all the contingency plans he had seen the concept of Lockdown had never appeared and that would not have been possible unless China, - who has the luxury of not having to worry about people`s rights and freedom, did it and the media coverage of the Italian outbreak panicked everybody and so it was activated for the first time into democratic societies.
What drove decision making in past events (1957 and 1968) was those in charge knew what they could do and more importantly knew what they could not, but we have not been here before, with science overselling their capability to make large profits and offering vaccines where they have not shared the raw data with anyone and governments having to take a guess from their sales departments statements as to what might be the effect of their products and outcomes they deliver.