At the start of the Covid-19 crisis, Chris Whitty often made the point that a pandemic kills in two ways: directly and indirectly. Locking down society also costs lives — and stymies life chances. Ever since the government moved to embrace lockdown, neither ministers nor the chief medical officer have talked much about the collateral damage it inflicts. This is odd, because it is perfectly defensible to say that lockdown is the least damaging course of action while still acknowledging the harm it causes, particularly for the young.
Not since Victorian times have so many children spent so little time in school. As ever, it is the poorest who will be most affected by the lack of education over the past year. The phrase ‘online learning’ will strike many parents as a tragic contradiction in terms: not many seven-year-olds are likely to learn very much staring at a computer all day. Nor is it obvious that the education they’ve received — for nearly a year now — is anything like a proper or tailored online course: we’ve bluntly transferred the classroom on to Zoom, and will have left many children behind in the process.
Rather than assess the problem, ministers have moved to cover it up by granting generous exam results. In theory, last year was the best ever for A-levels and GCSEs. In practice, we witnessed educational calamity. There has been strikingly little discussion about how to appraise the extent of the damage, which is, of course, the precursor to any attempt at repair.
An Ofsted report published in November found that more than two months of lost schooling last spring had resulted in children regressing in basic skills such as reading and writing. There was a rise in eating disorders and self-harm. The Institute for Fiscal Studies found that, in the last lockdown, better-off pupils spent 30 per cent more time on remote learning than disadvantaged pupils. Another study estimates that progress on fighting the attainment gap — the main driver of inequality — has been pushed back ten years.
Schools offer not just mentors and counsellors but a refuge for those in broken, even violent homes. During lockdowns, vulnerable children become invisible to social services. A third of teachers reported a rise in truancy during lockdown, with the poorest worst affected. The A-level results cannot hope to reflect the real effect on the young.
As the daily Covid death toll rises — now approaching or even exceeding the peak of 1,000 a day seen in the first wave — there is no doubt about the size of the threat. But nor should there be any doubt about the lethal long-term effect of the restrictive measures currently in place. A recent paper from the US National Bureau of Economic Research calculated 890,000 lives could be lost in the next 15 years as a result of the economic damage inflicted there. The debate over lockdown is, and always has been, an issue of balance.
If ministers had evidence that schools are a big driver of infections, it would be something. But Dr Jenny Harries, a deputy chief medical officer, said recently that schools are 'not a significant driver as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections'. This ought to be part of any cost-benefit analysis. We're aware of the harm closures inflict, but how certain are we of the benefits? Ahead of the decision to reopen, all such evidence — including that to which Dr Harries referred — ought to be published.
Lockdown will have massively widened the social divide, and without urgent steps to repair the damage, the rift threatens to become permanent. Summer schools, weekend lessons, out-of-hours learning — all kinds of options (and investment) should be on the table. And the Tories ought not to repeat their usual mistake of assuming all they need to do is lower a ladder so that those who need help can climb. The power of teachers — a skill that no computer can replicate — is to encourage, embolden and motivate pupils who are disinclined to learn. The phrase 'hard to reach' is too often, in politics, used as code to give up on large sections of society. It is the 'hard to reach' pupils who will have fallen furthest behind in lockdown. They will need active, imaginative, energetic help: laying on a few more optional lessons will not be enough. The Prime Minister made ‘levelling up’ his election theme. His work should start in the classroom.
Britain may well be one of the first countries in the world to vaccinate its way out of lockdown, so we can start planning the repair process now. Just as the Beveridge Report was commissioned during the second world war, work should start now to identify the extent of lockdown damage and how best to fix it. Education will be the most difficult problem. It may be expensive but we have seen in the past few months how quickly the resources of government can be mobilised when the political will is there.
This is why teachers ought to take their place beside medics and hospital workers at the front of the vaccine queue. They provide a public service every bit as vital as delivery drivers and shop workers: their services will be needed first in the task of social repair. The vast majority will be only too aware of the limitations of remote teaching, and that there is no substitute for the attention of a skilled teacher in a classroom. If ministers are asking them to return to schools after half-term, there is a clear case for offering them a vaccination.
When Boris Johnson belatedly took the decision to close schools, he made two promises: to do everything possible to reopen them after the February half-term and to make sure that by then those most at risk from the virus would be vaccinated. We will soon be approaching a point of assessment: was the threat as bad as he feared? Has the vaccine programme gone according to plan?
On both counts, there is grounds for optimism. The January surge that some had feared — as a result of family gatherings over Christmas — does not seem to have materialised. Cases have instead fallen about 20 per cent from their new year peak and this decline is starting to feed through into a decline in hospital admissions. The trajectory may change. The virus has a habit of confounding trends and predictions. But when the decision to reopen schools is made, things should be clearer — and this time, the bias ought to be in favour of the young.