Schools or pubs? That’s the choice some believe UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will face when English students return to their classrooms next month. The country has only recently been able to open establishments like pubs and restaurants, which suffered badly during lockdown.
Johnson’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, said that England has “probably reached the limits” of how open it can be, given the number of coronavirus cases in the country.
On the surface, it might seem a straightforward case of weighing up which is more important: a quick recovery from the economic downturn caused by lockdown, or students avoiding the “generational catastrophe” that the UN Secretary-General predicted if schools are not reopened.
However, this is not how the government sees it. According to numerous UK government sources who were not permitted to speak about policy yet to be announced, here’s where Downing Street is currently:
First, the calculation has changed now that we have seen exactly how damaging the lockdown has been to the UK’s economy. On Wednesday, it was revealed that the UK’s GDP had fallen a record 20.4% in the second quarter of 2020.
One government minister told CNN: “There is huge harm caused by lockdown itself and that needs to be set against the obvious huge harm caused by the virus. When you set one against the other and realize how low transmissions are among schoolchildren – how do you justifiably come down on the side of economic catastrophe over schools?” Public health experts have urged governments to treat claims that transmission is low in schools with caution, as it varies between age groups.
Second, contrary to the idea that there is a straight choice to be made, it’s not a “zero-sum game,” one government adviser told CNN. “It’s not the case of if pubs and bars are open X will happen and if you open schools Y will happen. If everyone is compliant with the rules of social distancing, cleaning their hands, you can basically have both at once.”
Third, the two things are not unrelated. “Schools are going back regardless, mostly because parents need to get back to work. Everything has a knock-on effect,” said a senior civil servant.
Fourth, this disease is here and, despite optimistic signs, there is still no clear idea of when a vaccine will arrive. Government sources say that despite the scale of the tragedy, it is still most dangerous for the elderly and vulnerable. So, if most people can go back to some type of normality, the focus can be on local lockdowns and protecting the vulnerable.
In short, the government might try to do everything at once. There will likely be a publicity drive placing “more emphasis on public responsibility both in messaging and enforceability,” in order to have a “third way” in which “human behavior is the first line of defense,” according to the government adviser.
Public health experts fear the country is still not in a position to guarantee doing any of this safely and that come the grand reopening, Johnson could still find himself having to make a choice.
There is a widespread belief that the UK’s test and trace program is still not up to scratch. Christina Pagel, professor of operational research at University College London, says “a strong contact tracing system that can break chains of transmission and drive infections down” is essential if schools are to be safe.
“Contact tracing should reach 80% of new symptomatic cases and 80% of their contacts,” she told CNN, adding, “we’re probably reaching about 50-70% of symptomatic cases” currently. Government sources claim that testing is higher than this, however it is very hard to get complete numbers since testing is now being carried out at a local level as well as by central government.
If testing is not where it needs to be, things could get out of hand quickly. “If we go back to the same level of contact that we had in March then we will go back to the same level of epidemic growth,” says Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
He explains that reopening schools is dangerous not just because of transmissions, but because of the size of networks they create. “A school of 500 children could connect 300-400 homes. And homes with more than one child who go to different schools, connecting all the households in both schools. So, you can see how, when all schools are open, the network can get enormous very quickly.”
But opening them is a priority. Johnson himself said that there is a “moral duty” to reopen schools this autumn. Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute, says “the most disadvantaged pupils (are) likely to have been hit the hardest by prolonged school closures,” creating an “attainment gap between the poorest pupils and the rest.” The dilemma comes days after the government faced criticism from students, parents and teachers about the downgrading of estimated exam grades.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore the fact that schools and economics have a significant impact on one another. Obviously, parents cannot go back to work if they have to stay home to look after children. But there’s also the matter of Brits’ confidence in their government.
“If people see that it’s possible to go to work, have schools open and go out to dinner while targeted measures quickly suppress local spikes, their economic behavior will be more normal,” says Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London. “If restaurants and pubs are suddenly forced to close and teachers say they don’t feel safe, this obviously undermines the government’s strategy which ultimately affects confidence that life will return to normal.”
Whatever happens, it’s going to be tricky. Either all things remain open with the government crossing its fingers that people obey the rules, or Johnson has to choose between children’s education or reviving economic activity.
Government critics say that the Prime Minister is himself partly responsible for his predicament, pointing to errors made in the early days of the pandemic.
“The most obvious error was the abandonment of community testing in March, which meant we missed months of being able to effectively identify cases and trace the contacts,” says Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology at the Royal Society of Medicine, adding that this means months later the country’s test and trace system is inadequate.
He points to the delays in lockdown and stopping people entering the country, leading to the impression that the government was “underplaying the seriousness of the virus.” He says the government’s centralized control “made curbing outbreaks very difficult. A pandemic is essentially lots of local epidemics and it’s easier to suppress these at a local level.”
All of these criticisms are well known. Members of Johnson’s own party privately bemoan the government’s early response. Even Johnson’s own education secretary said that there were “things we would take a different approach on.”
However, several months on, critics on both sides of his party now acknowledge that the country needs to start getting on with life as close to normal as possible. And that includes sending children back to school and keeping the pubs open – even as the country moves towards a winter that could see a second spike in infections.