The Guardian view on calls to reopen schools: a dangerous distraction | Editorial

With more than 1,000 deaths from Covid every day for weeks, talk of looser restrictions is reckless. The prime minister should ignore his backbenchers

The coronavirus situation in the UK could hardly be more serious, with more than 1,000 deaths a day every day since 9 January. Hospitals are at breaking point, as the eruption of a row over medical staff criticising the public for rule-breaking showed. Energy must be focused on driving infections down, and vaccinations up, particularly in view of warnings about the new variants.

Against this backdrop, a series of statements from Conservative politicians demanding that the government should announce when schools will reopen seems reckless politicking. The risk is that the public will be misled into thinking that the worst is over. Teachers and other school staff are already under huge pressure, as the prime minister acknowledged on Monday. When there is no timetable for vaccinating them or a solution to the problem of high rates of infection among children, why would one endanger frontline workers or the communities they serve?

Schools being closed is far from ideal. Home schooling is a poor substitute for professional teaching among peers. Education is among the greatest social goods. The absence of in-person lessons, in classrooms, has already increased inequalities of all kinds, and reduced community cohesion, which is promoted by people being together.

Education is the responsibility of the devolved administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. No one has got schools completely right. In England, Downing Street made serious errors in the autumn, for which the country is paying a high price. Infection rates among secondary-age pupils multiplied by 75 between September and December; before Christmas, children were the most infected age group. Ignoring calls for a longer half-term break to create a “circuit breaker” was one mistake. A rota system in secondary schools leading to smaller classes was another pragmatic step that ministers chose not to take. But schools were rightly among the country’s top priorities.

That picture has now grown far more murky, with economic activity of various kinds taking place – as shown by raised traffic levels, compared with last year – while schools stay shut. When Robert Halfon, Conservative chair of the education select committee, calls for tighter restrictions “in other parts of the economy” in order that schools may reopen, he has a point. Similarly, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, is right to warn of the toll on young people’s mental health, and to say that greater clarity about what comes next would help.

Discussions are needed about a staggered return, or whether a balance can be struck between learning on and off school sites. But this is the wrong moment to push for dates. Right now, the focus must be on driving transmission down and giving people sufficient money so that they are able to stick to the rules, including quarantining. It seems that the administrations in charge of education understand this. But the purpose of the Covid Recovery Group of Conservative backbenchers is to bolster a wider argument against lockdown and in favour of economic activity, and to create a diversion from a disastrous situation.

The prime minister must stand firm. The Tory right’s dogmatism lies behind many of the difficulties the country now faces: the threat to export businesses due to Brexit, renewed pressure on the unions with Scotland and Northern Ireland, weakened public services struggling to cope with the pandemic. There are good reasons to be concerned for children’s welfare. But finely balanced decisions about when and how to reopen schools must be based on scientific evidence, not ideology.

Contributor

Editorial

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