Though Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, was quite right to order their closure on March 18, nobody questions the high price that pupils and their families have paid in the past four-and-a-half months.
Home schooling has been, to say the least, a patchy affair, notional in many cases, and a serious pressure upon parents who have neither the time nor the resources to shoulder the burden. Hundreds of thousands of teenagers have been denied the chance to sit GCSEs and A-levels this summer. Though partial reopening for primary school children began on June 1, and for older pupils on June 15, most remain stuck in an unsatisfactory and sometimes stressful limbo.
So, as Rob Halfon, the Conservative chair of the education select committee, warned in June, there is now a risk — parallel to the still-simmering peril of coronavirus itself — of a full-blown “epidemic of educational poverty”.
And, for as long as children are stuck at home, millions of parents will be unable to return fully (or at all) to work. If there is to be anything approaching an economic recovery — of whatever shape — schools must open their gates, so that the workforce can resume its labours.
For these reasons, the study on the potential impact of school reopening, published this week by The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, is the most potentially consequential scientific paper since the Imperial College briefing in mid-March that warned of 500,000 deaths if a lockdown were not implemented.
Using a complex computer model, researchers from University College London and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have spelt out the epidemiological risks that are heading our way.
Their conclusion is blunt: “Reopening schools either full time or in a part-time rota system…alongside relaxation of other social distancing measures will induce a second Covid-19 wave in the absence of a scaled-up testing programme”.
There is a deep anxiety that schools have the potential to be quiet engines of infection in the autumn
In private, ministers are shaken by these findings, and with good reason. Though the impact of the pathogen upon young people themselves is radically smaller than on their parents and grandparents, the report is right to acknowledge that there is not yet a settled scientific orthodoxy on “the degree of asymptomatic transmission by children”.
Though the decision in June by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, to renew lockdown in Leicester drew attention to conditions in the city’s notorious sweatshops, there was also concern in Whitehall about spikes of infection apparently associated with schools.
It is also clear that the first national wave of the virus was closely connected to the February half-term and the return of school children from overseas trips to the petri dish of the classroom.
There remains a deep level of anxiety in the Government that — while pupils themselves, happily, are not often affected by the virus — re-opened schools have the potential to be quiet engines of infection in the autumn.
A phrase that is increasingly common among ministers is “risk budget”: once the decision is taken to relax radical restrictions, you have, so to speak, a certain amount of risk to “spend” — and the question is how you do so without going into the red.
According to this calculus, the journey out of full lockdown will be a long and often exasperating series of trade-offs. It is for this reason that Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, has warned ministers that, in effect, they may have to choose between pubs and schools in particular areas — and that, facing this choice, they should close pubs.
The principal variable in the Lancet paper, however, is the efficacy of the test, trace and isolate (TTI) strategy. The authors are not steering public policy makers towards closing down any sector of the economy. They are warning them instead of the consequences if the TTI regime falters.
The bar set by the researchers to avoid a second wave is high, furthermore: “Assuming 68 per cent of contacts [of confirmed cases] could be traced, we estimate that 75 per cent of those with symptomatic infection would need to be tested and isolated if schools return full time in September, or 65 per cent if a part-time rota system were used. If only 40 per cent of contacts could be traced, these figures would increase to 87 per cent and 75 per cent, respectively.”
According to Baroness Harding, chief executive of NHS Test and Trace, the present level of contact tracing was “well within the bounds” of what the Lancet researchers “are saying is necessary”. To which one can only reply: let’s hope so. The Government claims it is close to its target of 80 per cent success in reaching those who test positive. But data on the percentage of contacts being reached is hazier: in north-west England, for instance, it appears to be only 52 per cent.
The liaison between central and local authorities remains unsatisfactory, as does the level of transparency over the involvement of private companies.
To cap it all, there is a clear discrepancy between the number of symptomatic cases reported by the test-and-trace system — 4,000 a week — and the figure reported by the Office for National Statistics — 4,000 a day.
Oh, and by the way: where’s the long-promised contact-tracing smartphone app? Eaten by the dog, along with the homework, perhaps.
The stakes could hardly be higher. Everything in this process is closely entangled and interconnected. Errors in one part of the system impact everything else.
This study is a warning of the highest importance and gives the Government four weeks to get test-and-trace in order before the kids return. A “world-beating” system? It had better be.