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Now is the time to back Boris Johnson

However reluctantly, we need to back Boris on the lockdown.

Regular readers of my column will know that I have been no shrinking violet when it comes to recommending changes to Government policy. But on Covid, I think we have no option but to support the Prime Minister.

When the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Chief Scientific Adviser, Public Health England and independent modelling all suggest a huge rise in deaths and an overwhelmed NHS on the current national trajectory, what Government wouldn’t listen to that advice?

As we learned from the comfort of our sofas on Saturday evening, we could see, without action, up to twice as many deaths over the winter as we saw in the first wave – exceeding as many as 4,000 deaths per day.

In September, critics hounded Sir Patrick Vallance for saying that there could be 200 deaths a day from Covid by mid-November. In fact, we reached that figure much sooner, in late October, rising to 326 by 31 October.

Even if some predictions seem wildly high, would the leader of our country really be willing to risk it? Death cannot be reversed.

For those who question the statistics, read my colleague Neil O’Brien’s article on this site and his numerous tweets, explaining the data behind the decisions that are being made.

Of course, there are differing views about the science from the professionals involved – there always will be. But, at the end of the day, if you ignore advice from the top medical and science advisers appointed by the State to look after our health, what is the point in having such appointments in the first place?

Moreover, it is not as if Britain is unique in all this. Belgium, Italy, France and Germany faced a similar fate and have imposed tougher restrictions and lockdowns. Are the Government’s medical advisers in these countries, who are also dealing with a second wave, all wrong?

I just don’t think as a country we can afford to take the view that this is just the sniffles, as the Brazillian President has suggested. As for the comparisons with flu, we have an annual vaccine and significant herd immunity.

Don’t get me wrong, I would have preferred to keep the traffic light tier system as a compromise. I still think we should return to this system in a months’ time. There is real demand for the Government to publish much more data behind its decisions to close certain venues, alongside the impact of lockdown on the economy, livelihoods, poverty, mental and physical health. Apparent anomalies like not allowing pubs to serve takeaway drinks need to be answered.

In press conferences, the Government should do more to emphasise understanding of the devastation these decisions are causing small business owners, their employees and their families, and then set out (in good time) policies to mitigate against these consequences. The Prime Minister’s statement in the Commons on Monday, announcing additional support for businesses and the self-employed through November, was enormously welcome.

However, given that I am not a scientist nor an epidemiologist, if the CMO says that the situation is rapidly becoming much worse, and urgent action is needed, who am I to argue? I certainly don’t think I am an idiot for listening to what they have to say.

So we need to back Johnson at this time. The Government is walking a tightrope between destitution and death. Opposition to what the Prime Minister is doing in a national emergency sows confusion in the eyes of the public. It gives succour to political enemies – who can shout the loudest, without having to take life or death decisions.

Keep the schools open

Of course, more than ever, schools need to be safe for teachers, support staff, children and parents. It is absolutely right that teachers and support staff who are at risk – those who are vulnerable, or need to self-isolate – should be able to stay at home.

However, thank goodness the Chief Medical Officer and others have said that, even with the new restrictions, it is safe to keep schools open and vital for children, pupils and students.

Pointing to the “extensive evidence”, the Chief and Deputy Medical Officers across the UK reached the consensus that “there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19” – with the fatality rate being lower than seasonal flu. In their joint statement, they noted schools are also “not a common route of transmission”. Data from the ONS also suggests teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population.

During the last lockdown, around 2.3 million children did no home learning (or less than one hour per day), according to the UCL Institute of Education.

The Education Endowment Foundation estimated that the disadvantage attainment gap could widen by as much as 75 per cent due to school closures.

And just last week, a study reported in Schools Week found that Year Seven pupils are 22 months behind expectations in their writing ability. Disadvantaged students have inevitably suffered the greatest.

Scientific research has shown that it is safe to keep the schools open and that closing them would exacerbate issues relating to children’s mental health and wellbeing, safeguarding and academic attainment.

Throughout this pandemic, the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has been a powerful advocate for keeping children in school – not only for their education, but mental health and safeguarding. In advance of the lockdown announcement she tweeted, “We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut and first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close”. I doubt that the Children’s Commissioner would make such a statement if she thought there was significant risk to those in schools.

Even the Labour Leader, Keir Starmer, told Andrew Marr on Sunday that schools should remain open as we go into a second national lockdown, recognising that, “the harm caused to children by not being in school is huge”.

The Head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton, issued a response to the Prime Minister’s statement, saying: “It is right that keeping schools open should be the priority in the new national lockdown… Children only get one chance at education, and we have to do everything possible to provide continuity of learning.”

As Serge Cefai, Headteacher of the Sacred Heart Catholic School in Camberwell, told BBC Radio 4’s World at One on Monday: “Good schools and good teachers will always prioritise the needs of the children. And, of course, it’s a balancing act, but we need to understand that the harm in keeping children at home is huge… The idea that sending children home will stop the transmission is absolute nonsense”.

Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation – London’s biggest academy chain of 50 schools – said: “Young people have already lost a large chunk of their education and disadvantaged children have been damaged most. Aside from the loss of education, there is rising evidence of mental health and child protection issues under lockdown. The closure of schools would inflict more, probably irreparable, damage to those who can afford it least”.

So many heads, teachers and support staff are working day and night to keep our schools open. I’ve seen the extraordinary work they do in my own constituency of Harlow.

Other European countries imposing lockdowns have also decided to keep schools and colleges open. In Germany, for example, a conference of Ministers in October stressed that children’s right to an education is best served in the classroom, arguing: “This must take highest priority in making all decisions about restrictive measures that need to be taken”.

The Prime Minister has said that the Government is ramping up testing. Capacity is now at close to 520,000 tests per day. Schools have access to the Department for Education and Public Health England for sound advice and guidance.

To put it mildly, it is disappointing that the National Education Union would rather risk an epidemic of education poverty, rather than doing everything possible to keep our children learning.

6 comments for: Robert Halfon: This time round, let’s keep the schools open – and not risk an epidemic of education poverty

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