England’s schools must reopen. That is abundantly clear. The medical advice is that this is safe, within all reasonable bounds of risk, and that keeping children out of school is the true harm. Throughout the pandemic, more have died in suicides, fights and accidents at home than of Covid-19. Infection passed to older people is not likely to prove a major problem, and not one best met by closing schools.
So what is the trouble? Across much of Europe, children returned to school with adjustments for safety in May and June, not just in Germany and Scandinavia but in countries that had severe lockdowns such as France. There was no evidence of any surge in Covid-19-related illness as a result. Why then did the prime minister in June have to drop plans to reopen schools in England before the summer holidays, and then plead this month that returning to school in the autumn was a “moral issue”? He repeated this plea at the weekend with scientific reinforcement. Yet parents and teachers still seem frightened. English schools have had a bad enough press this summer without additional intimations of mortality.
The truth is hard to avoid, that the prime minister’s handling of this crisis with a mix of glib optimism and dire menace, spiced with naive Cummings-style slogans about “save lives”, has not worked. What in most European countries has been a sensible conversation between leaders and led has in England looked like a closed establishment playing games with the emotions of the nation.
The case for closing schools, and certainly primary schools, was intended to sensationalise Johnson’s 23 March U-turn from herd immunity to lockdown. There was no evidence that schools were hubs of infectivity, but a clear likelihood that closure would increase every harm from missed education to parental unemployment and domestic violence. Scenarios were distorted, death rates concealed, testing numbers inflated, policies changed with no evidence in support. An aura of panic settled over Whitehall as Johnson wrestled to appear in control.
An alarming side-effect of lockdown has been the readiness of the British public to accept its curbs on personal liberty without complaint. The word of authority has been obeyed even at extreme inconvenience, cost and harm to individuals and families. Only among the sociable young has disobedience emerged. That is understandable given the maximum risk with which they were threatened and the minimal risk that has emerged.
The lesson of this is that Johnson’s bluster, deception and bombast have ill-prepared the nation for recovery from this pandemic. People want to be taken into the confidence of government. They want to be led intelligently through argument to conclusion. That is why Germans, Swedes, Italians and Spaniards are now returning to work and taking their children to school. Millions of English people are punishing themselves and their economy by remaining scared.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist
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Source: The Guardian