A worker disinfects a school against coronavirus in Bojnord, Iran. Source: Wikimedia - Peyman Hamidipoor A worker disinfects a school against coronavirus in Bojnord, Iran. Source: Wikimedia - Peyman Hamidipoor

Scientists speaking out against the government put pressure on Boris Johnson to delay school re-opening, writes David McAllister

A week is a long time in politics, the saying goes. In a crisis, it is doubly so. In the five days which have passed since the Cummings debacle in the rose garden, it has been difficult to see how things could get any worse for Boris Johnson’s government, which has seen its approval ratings nosedive as a result.

But now, as many teachers, parents, and children anxiously prepare for a wider reopening of schools on Monday, five scientists from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) have broken ranks and spoken out about their safety concerns over the lifting of lockdown restrictions, particularly with regard to schools.

One by one, each has said that the case number, currently at 8,000 a day, is too high to ease lockdown measures and send more children back to school, with Professors John Edmunds and Jeremy Farrar also insisting that there needs to be a robust test, track and trace system in place before wider reopening happens. Both these concerns are included in the National Education Union’s (NEU) Five Tests and have been raised repeatedly by campaigning teachers, parents, and other activists around the country.

Speaking on Radio 4, Professor Peter Horby of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group reflected the fears of many when he said that we do not have a good handle on the role of children and schools in disease transmission. He also shares Edmunds’ and Farrar’s concerns that test, trace, isolate must be fully up and running before lockdown measures are relaxed.

Dido Harding, who is heading up the test and trace operation, has admitted that it won’t be fully up and running until the end of June.

The significance of scientists calling out the government is obviously massive. Ever since the start of this crisis, the government has repeatedly insisted that it is simply ‘following the science’. The daily briefings in particular have been carefully crafted to promote this image. The appearance of scientific advisors alongside ministers in coronavirus briefings is designed to give government policy the appearance of scientific authority and objectivity.

This image has always been an attempt to shield the policies from the opposition. Policymakers, we are meant to believe, have been perfectly rational thinkers, uninterested in a political ideology which, apparently, is only the preoccupation of their ‘militant’ critics in the NEU.

The reality of how the government has handled this crisis has completely blown that image to pieces. Revelations of woeful ill-preparation, ignoring warnings and advice from the World Health Organisation, initial reluctance to close schools, failure to protect workers, and introduce mass testing, have all contributed to giving the UK the largest per-population infection and death rate in Europe.

This also confirms that, while science can give us access to information, how that information is applied, or even what information is sought, is determined primarily by political decisions. The manner in which science is used is, like austerity, determined by political choices. The government’s handling of the crisis is a classic example, not of evidence-based policy, but policy-based evidence. The policy in this case is simple – to prioritise profit and the economy over people’s lives and safety.

Teachers are at the sharp end of a wider battle to force the government to change from this course. The NEU has issued a call to Government to step back from the brink of a potentially disastrous wider reopening of schools 1 June, and a possible second peak, and has urged all members to use the safety checklist on its website and access support for vulnerable staff.

The government’s policy, and credibility, is in tatters. Hundreds of schools are reportedly already pushing back wider reopening by up to two weeks. Activists and campaigners need to push on, defend the NEU, get active in their own unions and raise the biggest challenge possible to a government which puts profit over lives.

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