So, another year, another lockdown. One day last week – it doesn’t much matter which, they are all the same – someone, probably our exemplary Prime Minister (in the Concise Oxford’s enigmatic second-choice meaning: ‘serving as a warning’), switched our Secretary of State for Education on and pointed him in the direction of the BBC’s Today studio. Once he got there, it transpired that he had been programmed by mistake to audition for the BBC’s ‘Just a Minute’ programme by talking non stop, without pause or hesitation, for the full ten minutes of the interview on the subject “Education is our nation’s top priority”, digressing only to complain without hesitation that the Today presenter who had drawn the short straw kept interrupting him by trying to ask questions. His programmer appeared not to have been told that one of the rules of the game was that he was supposed to avoid repetition. It became apparent very rapidly that whoever is responsible for robotics in Downing Street hasn’t yet got on top of programming Williamson to voice his repetitive message in something other than a monotone. The gist of what he had been programmed to say was, you will have gathered, that education is a national priority, and that schools would most certainly reopen on schedule on 4th January.
On December 30th the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (the SAGE that scientific experts decided they needed to establish when it became apparent that Dominic Cummings was trying to exert his malign influence on the official SAGE) warned that a third national lockdown, was “vitally necessary”. On 18th December the Office of National Statistics had calculated that the rate of Covid19 infection in children was much higher than that in adults: the proportion of the 2-6 year-old population in England infected with Covid19 was more than twice that of those who were over 50, and that of the 7-11 year-old population more than three times that number. A study released by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine on 23rd December had concluded that the government would have to close primary and secondary schools and universities if the infection rate was not going to continue to worsen.
On Wednesday 30th the Government yielded to pressure and postponed the start of the Spring Term for all secondary, and some primary schools in London, to mid-January, in spite of education being a national priority. By Saturday 2ndthe government had performed another U-turn, telling primary schools in London not to open the following Monday, generously allowing parents almost the whole weekend to make childcare arrangements. This was somewhat ironic given the same government’s threat to take legal action against some (Labour) London Councils for trying to ignore the fact that education is a national priority by closing their Covid-hit schools for the last week before Christmas. On Sunday 3rd it was reported that the National Association of Headteachers was urging all schools to move to home learning and that it was taking legal action against the Department of Education, demanding to know the scientific evidence on which the insistence on keeping schools open was based. At the same time the National Education Union reminded its members that they were not obliged to go to work if the conditions they were expected to work in were unsafe.
All of which was a slow and painfully protracted lead-up to the moment on Monday 3rd when Johnson, hair half-brushed and spasmodically jerking clenched fists for once kept more or less under statesmanlike control, announced our third national lockdown – despite the fact that education is our national priority. At our resurrected Downing Street daily news conferences that afternoon, when Johnson was asked in effect why he had waited until millions of potentially infected children had been brought back to infect others at school for just one day before closing all schools, colleges and universities as part of a national lockdown, he replied: “We wanted to keep schools open but, alas, it became clear that the data wasn’t (sic. – and he prides himself on his Latin) going to support that.” Given that the day before he had baldly declared that “schools are safe”, the implication was that the data from 18th December had only become known the night before. Telling the entire nation such a bare-faced lie on such a critical matter would not have been regarded as particularly statesmanlike in the pre-Trumpian era. So the classrooms were empty today while over 62,000 people in UK tested positive for Covid; 30,000 people suffered in hospital with Covid; over 1000 people died From Covid; and our official underestimate of Covid-related deaths in UK rose to over 77,000. The wheel has come full cycle and “Stay at home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has once again trumped education as the national priority. One just has to hope it isn’t too late to save the NHS