I have been writing about the government’s response to Covid-19 over the past 18 months, and I thought, as it’s the start of a new year, I would track back over these articles to reconsider what I said and to consider how the government’s ongoing policies have stood up to the test of time. What I found was a catalogue of failure and callous disregard for children’s safety, indicating that sadly, in the UK, they are likely to continue to form the vanguard for infection by each new variant as the pandemic continues.
Reopening schools: summer 2020
In my first article for Yorkshire Bylines in early May 2020, I questioned the wisdom of bringing the youngest children back into schools first, given the level of physical care they required, and the impossibility of independently managed distancing amongst such young children.
Three weeks later, I explored local authorities’ concerns about reopening schools, quoting Wired, whose report suggested that the whole process had been conceived as a ‘giant national experiment’, an issue that has arisen many times since then, in connection with the phrase ‘Herd Immunity’.
In early July 2020, I suggested some alternative approaches to education that would enable a safer return of children to schools as the academic year 2020/21 opened. This included a project-led curriculum for under 14s that would be more robust for schools moving in and out of lockdown, especially paired with the type of online learning the Open University had been running for decades. I suggested how this might be ‘tweaked’ to encourage and bolster children being supported by parents and other non-teacher adults, in particular making use of copious visual materials the Open University had produced in partnership with the BBC over many years, such as science, wildlife and history programmes.
Social media backlash
To my surprise I got a very angry, negative reaction from a few teachers on social media, who went on to coordinate a social media ‘pile on’. I reflected on this experience in my subsequent article a fortnight later.
The use of algorithms in education assessment was also a key focus of mine in summer, particularly the Department for Education’s disastrous attempt to apply this to teacher-assessed A level results, resulting in children from disadvantaged backgrounds consistently receiving lower grades in the assessments that determined their post-18 futures.
Towards the end of August, I discussed the issue of face mask wearing. At the time, I noted that Boris Johnson seemed to be baffled by this prospect because a virus ‘could not be bullied or bluffed into submission’ in the way he customarily dealt with political problems. There had also been evidence of government misinformation about the spread of Covid-19 in schools.
On 19 September 2020 I picked up on anecdotal evidence indicating a burgeoning spread of covid amongst teachers and pupils.
The ‘gaslighting’ begins
At the end of October, I put together evidence to suggest that the government were intentionally ‘gaslighting’ the public about the spread of Covid-19 in schools, quoting Professor Anthony Costello at the most recent Independent SAGE meeting: “If a government actually had a strategy of herd immunity, it wouldn’t look much different from what we have now”. Teachers were also beginning to raise the alarm.
A further article in mid-November attempted to cut across the government rhetoric that claimed children had forgotten to use knives and forks while at home in lockdown, and to seek some authentic data relating to children’s experiences over spring/summer 2020.
Results of academic studies on this period in children’s lives are now currently being published by projects such as Sheffield University’s Play Observatory.
Entering pandemic year 2: looking back, looking forward
At the end of 2020, my article, ‘Suffer the Children 2020’, explored all the government’s missteps over the first year of covid, including Gavin Williamson’s threat to take legal action against schools closing a few days early for the Christmas holidays due to high levels of infections amongst children and staff. It now appears several parties that broke lockdown laws were being held in the DFE buildings at that time.
In January 2021, I published an article that listed all the things that the government could have put in place (ten months into the pandemic) that would have improved children’s experiences, but that had never been done. I repeated suggestions from my July 2020 article including the provision of project work for children under 14 that could more flexibly be pursued at home and at school, and making more use of the outdoor environment, supported by coordinated online lessons facilitating such provision.
Instead, children were given ‘talking head’ online lessons that required them to sit indoors at home for very long hours. This led to depression and anxiety for many families; an issue that was more honestly reported by other Western nations.
And it could all have been so different.
Covid-19 and children in 2021
In February 2021, I covered indications that the covid summaries that the government were presenting were ‘cherry picking’ research findings in order to suppress data that supported the asymptomatic spreading of Covid-19 by children.
In July 2021, I questioned the wisdom of returning children to schools in which no covid mitigations whatsoever were in place. In August 2021, I raised the issue of children, still largely unvaccinated being returned to schools where the prospect of their vulnerability to covid was to be largely ignored, as Professor Christina Pagel highlighted in the BMJ.
I returned to the concept of open-air education in a further article in the first week of September 2021, looking back at practices in the UK in the early twentieth century, and outlining contemporary practices in Scandinavian schools.
In November 2021, I considered previous establishment attempts to suppress inconvenient scientific information, this time relating to climate change, and compared this to current government attitudes to covid, particularly with respect to schools. The newly released Netflix Film ‘Don’t Look Up’ can now be highly recommended as a masterful satire on this topic.
Finally on 5 December 2021, I suggested, with Ruth Swailes that, given the emergence of Omicron variant covid in winter 2021, following the emergence of the Delta variant in winter 2020 and the DFE’s refusal to bring in mitigations in both autumn terms, England was heading towards a ‘groundhog day’ situation.
We urged the government to learn from past mistakes and instruct schools to finish for Christmas on 10 December, to create a ‘fire break’ that might slow down infections. Predictably, this did not happen, and many children (including my own grandson) started the Christmas holiday with covid that passed around their families during the winter holiday period.
What now for the pandemic: entering year 3
So where to now? It has been plain since early 2021 that pursuing herd immunity is dysfunctional because of covid’s ability to rapidly mutate, but the government still seem unable to respond to this fact, and the mainstream media also seem unable to effectively articulate the issues, which is also feeding into the acute lack of reflection and proactive planning.
I hope that the Omicron wave will end this pandemic. I hope that the scientists will produce better vaccines, so Covid-19 retreats to the level of a background concern, in the same manner as seasonal flu. But I have stopped hoping that the government will take any coordinated measures beyond vaccination to pro-actively protect anyone in the UK, and certainly not the child population, who through patchy vaccination efforts and mass mixing in schools become the bulk of the population infected as each new variant arrives.
As Nelson Mandela once said, ”There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. And in this respect, as in so many others, the history of the Johnson government serves as a warning that the UK is in very deep trouble.