How on earth could it have come to this? Today is the day, much-heralded by the tabloids, for the return to school after the ten long weeks of lockdown and home-schooling. But only for some classes and only in England, and it is being left entirely up to parents, living through the worst health emergency this country has experienced for a hundred years, to take the potential life-or-death decision whether or not to risk sending their children back to school if they happen to be in the eligible classes.
On what possible basis are they supposed to make that choice? Because the government of England, which we used to think was the government of the United Kingdom, says it is now time (and safe) to do so? But the June 1stdate was decided weeks ago on the basis of no evidence whatsoever that it would be safe by today and, given that 8,000 people are still being infected by the virus every day, it is still, all too clearly, not without risk. And not just risk to the children. Although the evidence shows that children are the age group least badly affected by Covid-19, the extent to which asymptomatic children can carry the virus back into their homes to infect the rest of their families is still a lot less certain.
So are parents supposed to base their decision on our government’s track-record where the virus is concerned? That is something of an ask considering that the UK is widely considered to have been one of the four worst countries in the world when it comes to its handling of the pandemic, unfair as that is to the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland. Thanks to a decade of austerity, and a linked determination to be deaf to all warnings, we were hopelessly illprepared and under-equipped for the outbreak of a widely predicted global pandemic. We stopped testing and tracking just when we should have been ‘ramping’ it up. We allowed two major sporting events to go ahead, bringing thousands of spectators into this country from the epicentre of the disease in Europe, at a time when the rest of Europe was busy locking everything down. We didn’t close our airports when we should have, and our government now bizarrely thinks that it is a good idea to do so three months too late. So our government’s track-record isn’t going to inspire in parents a lot of confidence that it knows what it is talking about when it says it is safe for schools to reopen.
To complicate their decision even further, parents are having conflicting advice and concerns dinned into them from all sides. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) thinks it is OK for schools to reopen, but at least four members of that group have come out independently to say it is too soon. And in any case that group lost credibility to such an extent when it became clear that Dominic Cummings was sitting in on SAGE meetings, and might be influencing its decisions, that an independent group scientific advisory group felt obliged to set itself up. Teachers unions think it is too soon. The vastly more credible devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, which don’t consist of English Nationalists, think it is too soon. But educational experts and children’s mental health experts are consistently pointing to the need to get children back to school as soon as it is safe to do so. And almost all parents who aren’t teachers are likely to be only too ready to acknowledge that the home schooling they are trying to supervise won’t be as educationally sound as the lessons their children enjoy (or otherwise) in their classrooms.
What more basic reason could there ever be for having any government at all than to have a competent and authoritative body that can ensure that children will be safe in its schools? One only has to look to New Zealand to know that, even in a global pandemic such as the one we are trying to live through now, that is not an unrealizable ambition. But pity the unfortunate parents in England who have been left high and dry by our parody of a government to make the choice themselves as to whether to expose their children and their families today to the unquestionable, if one hopes relatively minor, risk of being infected by Covid-19. It is a huge relief for me personally that none of my grandchildren is in one of the guinea-pig classes. Not that I imagine for one moment that my children would think it a good idea to send their children back to school in present circumstances, even if they were eligible.