The latest dump of WhatsApp messages between former health secretary Matt Hancock and former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson may be shocking as they reveal the men’s attitudes towards teachers.
But not surprisingly, and even instructively, there is a Long-running debate over benefits of closing schools to control the spread Coronavirus disease.
For many decisions, the science is crystal clear.
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Take the lockdown: in the absence of a vaccine, and the rapid spread of COVID to the over-65s and other vulnerable groups, a national lockdown in March 2020 and January 2021 was the only viable option for ministers.
Here, they “follow the science”.
But when it comes to kids, especially in a school setting, things can always get more nuanced.
Back in March 2020, scientists from the government’s SAGE advisory group explained that healthy children were at low risk of contracting COVID.
They also advise the government on negative impacts, loss of education, social interaction and pressure on parents to drop children out of school.
But they also correctly predicted that children — especially those of middle school age — are just as vulnerable to COVID and spread the virus as adults.
This led them to conclude, and continue to recommend throughout the early stages of the pandemic, that school closures would reduce COVID’s R value—the rate at which it spreads.
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But with more ambiguous scientific advice, the ball is in the minister’s court when policy decisions are made.
They can still be “guided by science” – but science won’t make up their minds for them.
The Daily Telegraph only published selected WhatsApp messages. We cannot rely on them to give us a balanced view of whether ministers are doing the right thing.
When it comes to school closures, even public surveys can struggle to reach conclusions about the best course of action.
School closures have not been carried out systematically.
They sometimes occur when the rest of society is in lockdown or under other forms of restrictions. Opportunities such as the autumn 2020 “circuit breaker” suggested by many SAGE scientists were rejected by ministers.
only half the equation
This has made it difficult for scientists to quantify the impact of school closures on the spread of the virus and the impact on the NHS.
Without that half of the equation, it’s impossible to know whether closing schools to slow the spread of the virus outweighed its impact on the lives and learning of millions of children.