Following the science during Covid lockdown? Not when it came to our children, apparently
Throughout the pandemic, the Government insisted it was following the science when it came to imposing restrictions.
So it is dispiriting to learn that when ministers gave the green light to masking secondary school children in communal areas, it was not because they thought it was needed, but because they did not want an argument.
It is yet another example of how badly children were let down in the pandemic.
From very early on it was clear that they were not being severely impacted by Covid-19. Unlike adults, the immune systems of children are expert at combating viruses and bacteria they have never seen before and parents are actively encouraged to take youngsters to farms or petting zoos to prime this capability.
Yet to protect older people and the NHS - and often to placate teachers and unions - children had their lives, and education, completely disrupted.
Now it has emerged that ministers could not even be bothered to fight for their rights to go move around their school unmasked - despite a lack of evidence masking would help.
On August 26 2020, the Government announced that schools in lockdown areas would get powers to recommend mask-wearing on secondary school pupils in communal areas.
Only the previous day, Boris Johnson had been told by Matt Hancock that children moving quickly between lessons were ‘usually a low risk’ because of one-way systems and ventilation.
During the Whatsapp exchange Prof Sir Chris Whitty said that there was: “No strong reason against in corridors etc, and no strong reasons for.’ He added: “So agree, not worth an argument,”
The August u-turn came despite warnings from their own scientists that face masks in schools could hinder children’s speech development.
A report from the Children’s Task and Finish Group – which was endorsed by the Scientific Advisory Group or Emergencies (Sage) six weeks earlier – stated that the "detrimental development impacts may be greater than the potential protective benefit".
Experts warned that the use of masks for children "is likely to be unfeasible for younger children" and argued that masks "may increase face touching among older children".
They added: “The risks of affecting or damaging general speech and language development is far greater than any risks of children transmitting.
“Viewing of faces is essential for brain development in both younger and older children, and in learning to speak/phonics, much of which is based on phonemic awareness.
“This is particularly important for children from less language-rich environments, or bilingual children, or children from English as an additional language (EAL) background.”
The report also warned that wearing a mask could negatively impact deaf or hearing-impaired children, children with other sensory needs, and children who struggle with emotional recognition and emotional regulation.
Speech experts argued that masks will make sounds more muffled and prevent children from picking up other communication clues from facial expressions.
Aside from the potential harms, the benefits were also uncertain. Even today the science behind the effectiveness of masks continues to cause debate.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation (WHO) advised against mask wearing and there are few randomised control trials (RCTs) that have been conducted in community settings with conclusive results.
Most studies have looked at health workers in hospitals, making it tricky to separate the use of masks from other personal protective equipment (PPE) such as eye shields, gowns and gloves, coupled with scrupulous hygiene practices.
And one of the biggest arguments between scientists is whether the virus is truly airborne, in other words floating around in sufficient quantities to have a noticeable impact on infections.
This is not the same as being close enough to someone that you can inhale the droplets they propel through the air as they breathe, speak or cough - a scenario with which masks would undoubtedly help.
The case for true airborne transmission comes from observational evidence which shows that people confined to closed environments - such as cruise ship cabins, prison cells and quarantine hotel bedrooms - have inexplicably become infected.
Erasmus University Medical Center, in Rotterdam, also found that ferrets can catch influenza if they share an air supply with an infected animal, leading them to theorise that coronavirus may spread in a similar way.
And we also know that transmission is higher indoors than outdoors, and scientists at the University of California have also shown that coronavirus can float in the air for several hours during lab experiments.
The University of Florida found the virus was present in the air around the hospital beds of Covid-19 patients. Virginia Commonwealth University studied 198 countries and found lower death rates in those with compulsory mask-wearing, or in which face masks were considered culturally normal.
However a Cochrane review by the University of Oxford and funded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that of the 67 studies looking at the role of airborne transmission, all were of low quality.
Rotterdam ferret study
Almost half the studies did not detect viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) in the air at all. Even the Rotterdam ferret study relied on animals being placed in small, sealed boxes joined by a large tube, with a strong air flow passing between them, hardly an analogue for everyday life.
Bristol University has since shown that the infectivity of airborne coronavirus decreases by 90 per cent within just 20 minutes of exhalation.
But a lack of good evidence did not seem to deter ministers. In fact, those that did attempt to stand up for children were ridiculed. When Gavin Williamson made an impassioned case for keeping schools open he was mocked as “freaking out” in an exchange between Matt Hancock and Emma Dean, his special advisor.
This is despite 1,500 paediatricians writing an open letter to Boris Johnson in June 2020 warning that closures ‘risk scarring the life chances of a generation of young people.’
Even now, experts estimate that the damage done to education has not been reversed, while mental health cases among young people have rocketed.
Study after study showed that schools were not causing rises in case rates, and were more likely reflecting what was going on in the community. Teachers were consistently found to be the main cause of outbreaks in schools rather than children.
After the first reopening of schools after lockdown in June 2020, it emerged just 70 children had been infected after returning to the classroom, out of 1.6 million. In contrast, 128 staff tested positive.
Studies by University College London (UCL) and Warwick University consistently showed that the damage from keeping children out of school far outweighed the risk from Covid.
The lasting legacy of the pandemic on children is still being quantified yet there seems to be little political will to address how badly they were let down.
When the terms of the Covid inquiry were first released they included just one reference to education, and did not mention the word ‘child’ or ‘children’ at all. Those that do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. This must not be allowed to happen again.