As ever, there’s a lack of strategic thinking to the government’s response
Lockdown began in the UK on 24 March because the governments mandated it but not really because they chose to. There were many reasons propelling politicians to that decisions, from the mounting numbers of Covid-19 cases and deaths to the examples being set abroad. What’s easily forgotten though is the extent to which the lockdown was in no small part a legal regulation of something that was already happening organically.
In truth, it was the advice to isolate if anyone from their household had Covid symptoms, combined with the number of cases (and, no doubt, additional suspected false-positives), that was bringing the country to a halt.
At the heart of that process was education. Schools need a certain number of teachers and other staff in them to be safe. Without that number, they can’t operate – or at best can only operate for a restricted number, although the logistics of doing that are difficult. As soon as some schools in an area began closing, that created a snowball effect as parents (including teachers at schools that were still open) found themselves unable to go to work as they had no childcare alternatives.
For over three months, many of those parents have tried to juggle home-working with childcare and many have succeeded to a degree but it’s very far from a sustainable, never mind an ideal situation. In truth, the return of anything close to a normally-functioning economy must have as a pre-requisite a functioning educations system.
There are, of course, other essential reasons why the schools need to re-open, not least their primary purpose of educating the nation’s children, which they’ve not been able to do to anything like their usual standard due to remote operation – a legacy that will probably literally last a lifetime. If the schools cannot fully re-open, the life-chances of this generation will be blighted still further.
Similarly, being confined to a small household is a danger for some children in vulnerable circumstances. Lockdown, furloughing and redundancies bring stress and mental health issues which, for some, will come on top of pre-existing conditions. A return to normality will, for them, not just be a matter of education and social interaction but of safety.
However, as the initial lockdown period proved, society and the economy are also integrated with the education system to such a degree that its return ought to be at the heart of the return-from-crisis plan. Which begs the question why it isn’t.
If anything marks the return from lockdown it’s just how unconnected any plan has been. The individual measures generally make sense on their own – reducing restrictions on social interactions, reopening outdoor venues first, and so on – but there seems to be no appreciation of any interactions between these decisions. To the extent that there’s been prioritisation, it’s been based on local practicalities, not national priorities. That has to change.
As Prof Whitty said this week, England has probably reached the limit of how far restrictions can be eased cumulatively, consistent with keeping a lid on new Covid-19 cases. Given the rise in cases over the last fortnight or so, you’d have to think that the limit might have been exceeded. And what’s true in England is true in Scotland too. While Nicola Sturgeon likes to pat her administration on its back, the truth is that cases are rising there too, and the death total is still worse than just about everywhere else in Europe. Having marginally better outcomes and considerably better communication skills than London is nothing much to write home about.
If that is the case though, there ought to be a discussion about priorities and necessities. So far, the government has been remarkably adept at responding to whoever is currently shouting the loudest, while – as mentioned – attempting to incrementally unroll the restrictions. That’s not sustainable.
Therefore, it should make sense to begin with those things which have to be done – essential services (which includes education) – and to then move out as far into wider society and the economy as is consistent with not letting the pandemic run out of control. That will mean some shops, businesses and entire industries not operating or, at the least, operating very differently to normal. But is there an alternative? I don’t see one.
In an ideal world, the government would already have been putting plans in place to enable schools to be up and fully running again in September, which unlike some plans speculated upon, cannot involve mass isolations off the back of single cases, otherwise we end up back where we were in March – but does include enough staffing capacity to cope with staff illnesses and isolation. It will not be simple.
But case numbers overall are low enough to at least give it a try. Unlike the US, where Trump is attempting to force schools back because of the same economic imperative but where case numbers are still at or near their peak, Britain has a chance. Maybe that means keeping clubs, theatres and sports venues closed. Maybe it means reshutting restaurants, or restricting numbers within them (which might amount to the same thing in practice). But if so, it’s a price that should have to be paid.