There's something rather ominous about a government minister waving around the results of a yet-to-be-published study to underline that they've definitely got a tricky policy nailed down. Over the weekend, we saw the Prime Minister and Education Secretary both insisting that it would be fine for English schools to reopen in September because a piece of research by Public Health England showed that there was little evidence the virus is transmitted at school. But the Times today reports that officials working on the study are uncomfortable with the way their findings have been represented by ministers and that older children may spread the virus in the same way as adults do.
It is almost as though ministers are so keen to prove that their plans will definitely work that they haven't yet really checked that their plans will, er, really work. We've seen a similarly cavalier approach to the government's track and trace scheme, which scientists argue is essential if schools are to stay open this autumn. Boris Johnson has described this programme as 'world-beating', while Health Minister Edward Argar on Tuesday said it was a 'successful system', even though the government is in the middle of changing the way contact tracing works – from a national system to one focused on the regions. Local authorities had complained that the current system wasn't making much headway in tackling outbreaks, and so instead a reduced number of tracers will focus on certain areas, with local public health officials taking over if the tracers fail to contact someone.
The PHE research on transmission in the classroom isn't likely to be published until some time after schools have reopened, by which time it may already be quite obvious whether or not the government has really ensured that schools are safe to return. The Association of School and College Leaders, which is hardly a militant teaching union, has been badgering ministers for any kind of back-up plan if it turns out not to be possible for all children to return to school at once. The government's response to this and to Labour's hesitation is to accuse these critics of being unreasonably obstructive to children's wellbeing. Even if it is true that at least some in the unions aren't as interested in getting schools back as ministers are, it may still be the case that their concerns about infections are well-grounded.