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In early May, readers of ConservativeHome may remember that this site was critical of teaching unions, several of which had campaigned against schools reopening.

In a joint statement, some of them accused the Government of “showing a lack of understanding about the dangers of the spread of coronavirus within schools”, and encouraged teachers not to “engage in planning meetings”.

ConservativeHome felt the unions were wrong for several reasons, one being that their moves came across as politically opportunistic.

The Government was always going to have a much tougher time convincing people to come out of lockdown – than go into it – and some members of the Left have capitalised on this, stoking fears so as to obstruct the Conservatives’ plans.

The second issue is that, despite accusing the Government of “showing a lack of understanding”, unions seemed utterly uninterested in scientific data on the safety of reopening schools, nor what was happening around Europe, where such moves had gone ahead successfully.

While there are still a huge number of unknowns about this virus – and no one should make bold proclamations either way – the evidence appears more in favour of showing that children do not get – or transmit – the virus as severely as adults.

Hence why I wrote in May: “Adult to adult contact seems the big danger”, and pointed out that the World Health Organisation had said that “serious illness due to COVID-19 is seen infrequently in children”.

Furthermore, one study by the Health Information and Quality Authority concluded that “children are not substantially contributing to the spread of COVID-19 in their household or in schools”.

Now that we are further along in the crisis, this position has become more openly discussed. Yesterday The Times had an interview with Mark Woolhouse, a leading epidemiologist and member of the Government’s SAGE committee, who said: “[Children] are probably less susceptible and vanishingly unlikely to end up in hospital or to die from [Coronavirus].”

He also said: “There is increasing evidence that [children] rarely transmit. For example, it is extremely difficult to find any instance anywhere in the world as a single example of a child transmitting to a teacher in school. There may have been one in Australia but it is incredibly rare”, and he added that there “are certain environments where this virus transmits very well and children are not present in these environments.”

So what does this all mean? First of all, it’s worth saying that, no matter what the Government, unions, Labour Party or media did or said, a huge number of parents decided for themselves that they didn’t want their children to be present at school. 

The Government had been fairly firm about keeping schools open in the beginning of the pandemic, but lost its nerve after families started removing their kids from schools regardless of what they were instructed to do.

It’s difficult to say whether closing schools was the right thing to do; it will be one of the questions brought up in a future inquiry, which Boris Johnson has promised will go ahead.

One thing, it seems to me, about this inquiry, is that many are expecting it to show that the Government was not cautious enough. Members of the media no doubt think that the Government should have ordered lockdown weeks earlier, and that schools should have been shut down sooner, and so forth.

But, what’s been missing from mainstream debates, and may come out in an inquiry is evidence for a more hawkish position; questions about whether Britain’s safety measures – and indeed measures elsewhere – have been proportionate to risk.

On schools, for instance, the Government should have been challenged much more from the Labour Party about whether they should have closed at all.

Not least because let’s consider the risks. If children do not get Coronavirus severely, or transmit it much to adults – if at all, the decision to close schools looks like it’ll lead to worse outcomes.

Research from University College London’s Institute of Education has even shown that around 2.3 million children either did not learning at all or less than one hour a day.

There will be other terrible consequences, such as parents struggling to keep work (due to childcare arrangements) and more children at risk of domestic violence.

The list of negatives is very long, but these arguments received little attention, and anyone who questioned the schools closures – and lockdown generally – was portrayed as uncaring.

The Labour Party’s complacency over school reopenings – essentially letting the unions speak on their behalf – was shocking given what a terrible economic impact it will have on many families.

I’m not saying that all MPs had to be pro-reopening, incidentally, but there should have been two sides to the debate, one pointing out the educational and economic consequences.

As we approach September, there will probably be even more complaints about schools trying to get started. But the Government, and the opposition, must take Woolhouse’s words – and wider scientific perspectives – on board. In fighting Covid-19, we have been too knee-jerk at times in deciding the right thing to do.

75 comments for: As a leading epidemiologist says school closures may have been a “mistake”, did the decision lack adequate debate?

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