From the start of the pandemic, I’ve failed to understand the reluctance of our leaders to evaluate the social harms of the interventions to combat Covid.
Some of these measures are perfectly innocuous and plainly beneficial – regular hand-washing, decent ventilation – indeed many of us will have noticed how fewer colds we’ve had in the last year; we can applaud these as the sensible precautions they are.
Yet other measures appear to carry meaningful risk; and what’s more, unlike Covid – an inherently discriminatory virus which poses serious risk only to a small percentage of the population – these measures impact large swathes and in some cases all of the population.
Measures of these kinds are ‘interventions’, just like vaccines and medicines, yet no serious attempt appears to have been made to evaluate their near-term or longer-tail risks and harms.
The implications of this failure are potentially serious and nowhere more so than across nurseries, schools and universities.
So when Gavin Williamson, parroting his inner-Boris, confidently told us in his press conference last night that “we can now take the next steps” towards “normality”, I couldn’t help but raise an eyebrow.
Item one on the Road to Normal declares that “schools and colleges are open for all students”. The cynics amongst us might assume we’re being led into thinking that normality for the country’s ten million pupils is now only a stone’s throw away.
Emphasis from the Secretary of State on catch-up programmes, summer schools and recovery plans only serves to add to the impression that this crisis is, for children, nearly over.
This is not true. For it hides that what is about to be restored will, for many children, be a far cry from anything resembling normality.
Babies will be cared for by adults whose faces they cannot see; toddlers will be asked to play in socially distanced squares.
Children will be tested for Covid at the start of term and every fortnight after; 11 year olds upwards will be wearing masks for six, seven, eight hours each day.
Schools will be operating under the weight of a regime so restrictive that many ‘normal’ activities are likely to remain off limits.
We have most university students denied a university experience with no end-date in sight, and we have SEN and disabled children for whom these rules mean schools will remain closed or out of bounds, it appears, indefinitely.
At first we, they, someone and nobody (the murky delegation of responsibility for these decisions is one of the fundamental failings) might have been able to claim ignorance, but if that was ever a defence it cannot be now: the emerging evidence of harms is becoming too great.
We know that sight of adult facial expressions is essential for toddler brain development; and we know that masks may harm children in a myriad of ways including restriction of oxygen – there are accumulating studies and now a nationwide German registry which tells us “impairments caused by wearing the mask were reported by 68 per cent of the parents” and goes on to explain that symptoms have included headaches (53 per cent), drowsiness or fatigue (37 per cent) and difficulty concentrating (50 per cent).
If these aren’t red flags, what are? We also know – because we’ve been here before – that the likely impact of the testing regime will be to ground healthy children at home for weeks at a time and we know that children out of school is bad for all concerned.
We are told that our leaders are following the science; but a more accurate description would be that they are following the science that suits them. If they were in fact ‘following the science’ – all of it – they would surely also be observing the standard public health and medical practice mantra: “first do no harm”.
This is important because, contrary to the innocuous sounding name, non-pharmaceutical interventions have the potential to cause grave harm. Consider the well-intentioned but devastatingly fatal public health advice to lay babies on their fronts to sleep: advice that was later associated with some 50,000 infant deaths.
In this case we know enough already to conclude that some of these measures have already done or may soon do a great deal of harm – take the example of face-coverings in classrooms where just a few weeks ago the Department for Education’s party line was that “face coverings can have a negative impact on learning and teaching and so their use in the classroom should be avoided”.
Worst, still, than the failure to evaluate, is the failure by those in charge to own these potentially harmful decisions. Certain of the measures required in educational settings are merely “recommended” rather than mandated – most notably masks in class.
Asking school leaders to make the decision on implementation is a weasely abrogation of responsibility. It puts school leaders in a difficult position and it risks alienating parents who might have forgiven ministers who disregarded children’s interests but may be less inclined to forgive or forget those who recklessly inflict harm on their children.
There is a great urgency to restore true normality to schooling and to ditch unevaluated and potentially dangerous interventions.
Jenny Harries talks of a desire to have “school environments almost free from infection”: this feels like an ambitious goal which may come at significant cost to children; notwithstanding that by early May the top nine groups – who together count for around 99 per cent of deaths – will have vaccine protection.
Failure to remove these measures not only risks doing serious harm to children but will undercut Gavin Williamson’s hope to come out of the pandemic “better, stronger and bolder”: does no one else see the irony in holding mental health clinics for masked children?