Boris Johnson, Coronavirus Briefing. Photo: Flickr/Number10 Boris Johnson, Coronavirus Briefing. Photo: Flickr/Number10

In the first CounterBriefing, Katherine Connelly responds to the government’s u-turn on school closures after pressure from below

Reluctantly and finally, the government has announced the closure of schools in England. Boris Johnson, at today’s press conference, was keen to stress that he had been guided by science in this decision – but everyone knows it was pressure from teachers and parents that have forced him to take this step.

There is no ‘scientific’ reason why schools in Wales decided to close their doors earlier than those in England; indeed, the virus is spreading fastest in London. There is no ‘scientific’ reason why the elite private school Eton College closed before the state schools.

Politics determines the response to scientific evidence. And the political view of the government was that the vast majority of us were to be subject to a nonsensical policy revealingly termed ‘herd immunity’.  According to this ‘strategy’ we (the herd) were all to be exposed to the virus and we would have to hope for the best.  Even the standard response to foot and mouth disease is better than this. 

We were told that children generally have a mild or asymptomatic response to the virus, that schools are a safe place for pupils and teachers and the plan had been to keep them away from older people who are more vulnerable to the virus. Apparently, ‘science’ means this strategy will no longer work at approximately 3.30pm on Friday.

Let’s examine these claims in turn:

Perhaps children have a milder response to the virus – but perhaps not all.  What about children with underlying health problems and respiratory diseases?  This is particularly a worry in London (where the disease is spreading most rapidly) where in the poorest communities children suffer disproportionately from lung problems due to greater exposure to pollution. 

The truth is we do not really know very much about this virus or how people are experiencing it because only the people who have been hospitalised are currently being tested.

But even if no school students were suffering ill-effects, this does not apply to adults who work in schools (not just teachers but cleaners, support staff, catering staff, administration staff etc.) and who are like any other group of adults. 

Keeping children in schools does not necessarily keep them away from older or more vulnerable people. But it does mean they are in contact with a large group of people which is completely at odds with the advice to practice social distancing as a way of containing the virus. 

It is surely more dangerous for older people and those more vulnerable to the virus if pupils pick up the virus unknowingly. It would be better if they did not have the virus in the first place.

So, none of this really makes sense scientifically. Instead, today’s press conference was a shameful exercise in trying to save face. 

A huge gap is becoming visible between the government’s slowness and ineptitude and the practical, pro-active response of ordinary people organising to protect our communities.

The politics of this government make them spectacularly inept for dealing with this crisis. One telling detail from the press conference was the exceptional provisions for children receiving free school meals. 

Under Tory austerity, the number of hungry children has skyrocketed, food banks have become institutionalised and teachers worry about children not being able to get enough to eat over the holidays.  We cannot let the people who responded to the economic crisis of 2008 with austerity – that great redistribution of wealth to the rich – respond to this one with the same devastating political priorities.

It is, for example, ominous that the government have already conceived of a raft of draconian plans that they intend to impose on the population, but have not conceded mass testing of that population. Mass testing, not more police powers, is the next thing we need to demand. The way the government shifted on schools shows that we can win this. 

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.