The science is clear. The government is at least a month behind the advice of epidemiologists. Unions representing education staff are right. It is unsafe to re-open schools and universities to all for the foreseeable future.
To shrink the pandemic we need to get below an ‘R’ rate of 1. The government’s own advisers say open schools and universities contribute between 0.3 to 06 to the ‘R’ rate. We are now battling a much more easily transmissible variant of the virus which experts believe increases the R rate by up to a further 0.7. Those two factors alone would take us over an R rate of 1. There’s no sugar coating this; if schools are re-opened to all, the pandemic will intensify. More people will become ill and die.
This lethal disease and the government’s sometimes lamentable response to it has given rise to impossible trade-offs. Even if schools are opened to the children of key workers and looked after children (which I support), there is no doubt that keeping schools closed to all does have huge negative consequences. That is especially true for the most vulnerable young people and children.
Abuse, neglect and mental health problems increase but are far less likely to be picked up than if the victims were in school. Research shows that the attainment gap between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and everyone else is becoming a chasm. This is the trade-off we are being forced to make: accept these life-blighting consequences for so many young people or save the lives of thousands of other people.
You can’t go to work and be home for your children at the same time. We also need to acknowledge that mothballing education makes people – and especially women – poorer. So as well as keeping schools closed, the government must provide decent financial support for working parents.
Johnson and Sunak must also extend the eviction ban and renew mortgage holidays. Support for self-employed people and COVID loans for businesses must continue. The Resolution Foundation forecasts that over 30% of the population will end up below the breadline in the wake of COVID. Under no circumstance must the Tories go through with their threat to take £20 a week off people who get Universal Credit.
The priority right now has to be to preserve life and to prevent critical physical illness. But we have so much to do to make good the damage done and create a better future. This pandemic has mainly threatened the health and lives of older people. But many of the costs have been disproportionately borne by the young in reduced life chances, educational attainment and employment.
Despite this pandemic, the priority for younger people is still overwhelmingly the climate and ecological crisis. When this virus is beaten, politicians must make it a priority to repay those sacrifices by taking the actions needed to safeguard all of our futures.