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Will schools be open by summer? There's room for the Government to be smarter about shut downs

Could primary schools re open early? Credit: Justin Setterfield/Getty

Could primary schools re open early? Credit: Justin Setterfield/Getty


January 13, 2021   7 mins

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, held a press conference on Tuesday, and entirely failed to answer a basic question: if the new variant is more infectious, how come the lockdown rules aren’t as tough as last spring’s?

Realistically, the reason for the weaker lockdown rules is that the Government continues to refuse to take difficult decisions until they are inevitable. But, if Patel were more nimble on her feet, there was a possible, plausible explanation open to her. And that is simply: we know more, now, than we did in March, so we can be more targeted about what we shut down.

For instance: the playgrounds are not closed this time. And that is, I expect, because we know that the virus, both in its old form and its new one, finds it much harder to spread outdoors. Dr MĂŒge Çevik, a virologist at St Andrews University, details here that the risk was around 20 times higher indoors than outdoors. We didn’t have that sort of data in March last year, so we had to be more cautious. (I cannot begin to guess, however, what their reasoning is for allowing estate agents’ offices to remain open.)

Choosing our targets wisely is important. The “wash your hands” message has been drilled into us since the beginning, but the WHO has not found a single clear-cut case of transmissions by surfaces, and research in the Lancet considers it “low risk”. It is important now that we tell people about the risks of being indoors and close to people, rather than about washing our hands until they bleed.

On the same basis, there may be room for being cleverer about schools. British children have not been in their classes since mid-December (except that one mad Monday last week), and before that had only had a few weeks’ in-person teaching since March. The Government plans to revisit its lockdown measures in mid-February, but that seems enormously optimistic: despite the progress with vaccination, the NHS will still be under enormous pressure by then.

Here’s why. By mid-February, the Government hopes to have given almost 14 million people the first dose of a vaccine. That will include all the most vulnerable groups, including all the over-70s. That is, obviously, extremely good news. (If it succeeds.)

Vaccinating those vulnerable groups will hugely reduce deaths. The actuary Stuart McDonald has put the numbers in, and estimates that if we vaccinate those groups on time, Covid deaths recorded by the ONS will drop by about 90% by mid-March. Deaths are hugely concentrated among the elderly.

But there’s a wrinkle. Deaths come down dramatically, and that’s great. But hospital admissions will come down rather less – by about 60%. And intensive care admissions will come down less still – by about 30%. That’s because, as two health economists writing in the Conversation point out, most ITU admissions are younger, with a median age of 62; only about a third are in the over-70 groups who will receive the first vaccines. 

And that means that pressure on the NHS will probably remain very high for a few months. It may start to come down as the usual winter concerns fade away, and as the weather gets warmer Covid might start to fade. But it may not, or may not be enough.

There are about 15 million people in the UK aged 50-70. At two million jabs a week, that’s another seven weeks of vaccinations; plus, because it takes time for the vaccine to be effective and because ITU cases are in hospital about twice as long, it would be weeks later still until the pressure on the health service really returns to normal. Say 10 weeks to have full effect; 10 weeks from mid-February is the end of April.

The current school closures are meant to be reviewed at the February half term, which in my borough is 12 February. But the health economists mentioned above say “The proposed date of February 22 for easing lockdown and opening schools seems optimistic,” and at least one academic I’ve spoken to agrees. The vaccinations just won’t have got that far. Even by the Easter holidays, which start 31 March, we will still be vaccinating the 50-to-70-year-olds, and the ITUs will still be full.

What I haven’t mentioned, of course, is the lockdown. Whether it’s been enough to reduce R below 1 is not clear. There are some early indications, as I write, that the spread has come down – the number of cases each day and the percentage of tests coming back positive appears to have plateaued, at least, and may be falling. 

But since it’s so close to bubbling over, even under this severe lockdown, the fear is schools could be shuttered until Easter or the May half term. I even had a panicked text message from an academic who works on paediatric public health, wondering whether they would have to stay closed until September.

This is where, I think, we can afford to be a bit cleverer. First, let’s talk about whether schools spread Covid. The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s modelling of the new variant, which was key to this most recent lockdown, suggested that without closing schools, it would be impossible to get the R value below 1. But as I wrote at the time, the schools themselves seemed to have a relatively small impact on the total number of deaths.

Suggested reading
Will schools be open by summer?

By Tom Chivers

So: what’s the evidence of schools’ impact on transmission? It is, I am afraid, hugely uncertain. I spoke to Dr Andrew Lee, a public health doctor at Sheffield University, and he pointed me to a recent preprint with the highly relevant title “Do school closures reduce community transmission of COVID-19? A systematic review of observational studies”. And the answer is, essentially, we don’t know.

The review looked at 10 studies, which all examined whether closing schools reduced the spread of Covid. Some of those studies found it had a big effect; some found a smaller one; some found none at all. “Our results are consistent with school closures being ineffective to very effective,” say the authors, unhelpfully. But there is a bit more information we can glean. 

First, not all those studies are created equal. “We know the quality of the studies are mixed and the findings are mixed,” says Lee. And those two facts are related. “The studies where the risk of bias is least, the more robust studies, tend to find no effect. The ones where they found rates of transmission were affected didn’t control for other measures.” 

Lee himself “is more inclined to believe” the studies finding smaller or zero effect, “because children aren’t effective spreaders of the disease”. He points to reviews of the evidence by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and McMasters University that suggest low levels of spread among schoolchildren.

Çevik broadly agrees. “It’s a very difficult question,” she told me. “We need to accept that studies looking at the effectiveness of non-pharmaceutical interventions are going to be at risk of confounding.” But, she says, the evidence, as best we can make out, is that children are not major drivers of disease. Transmission in schools seems to be only rarely from child to child, or from child to adult; it’s mainly adult to adult, or adult to child. 

We don’t know exactly why this is. Lee speculates that children, being smaller, breathe out smaller volumes of air, and because their immune system seems to repress the virus more effectively, keeping their viral loads low. Çevik notes that children are less likely to be symptomatic, and asymptomatic cases are less infectious. 

Secondly, and more importantly, so far we have lumped primary schools, secondary schools, colleges and universities together, and when we as a society have discussed school closures, it’s largely been all-or-nothing. (Nurseries are currently open, but otherwise it’s key workers and vulnerable children only.) The LSHTM model I mentioned above had them closed or open, altogether.

But children are not all the same. “A primary-school child is not the same as a teenager or a college student,” says Lee. “The risk is much higher with older age groups.” Çevik agrees: “Susceptibility to infection increases with age. After 15 the transmission dynamics are much more similar to adults.” Her own research backs this up. Smaller children seem to be at much less risk of getting and spreading the disease.

So it seems reasonable to say that the risks of opening primary schools, secondary schools and universities are very different. Lumping them together in one big thing called “education” misses a lot of important detail.

It’s also worth noting that the costs of closing primary schools are greater, on every dimension. Small children require much more parental supervision, making home-schooling far harder for working parents. They are more vulnerable to abuse. And the direct educational impacts are worse. So should we reopen primary schools before the rest of the education system, and if so when? 

A few things to consider. First, it’s worth noting that I have primary-aged children and am hardly impartial about this. And it seems that the new variant does not disproportionately affect children, as was originally feared. But it seems to be better at spreading under all circumstances, by somewhere around 50%. So even if children are still a smaller part of the equation, relatively speaking, than adults, they could still be important. “If a contact has 5% chance of transmission,” says Adam Kucharski, a mathematical epidemiologist at the LSHTM, “and you have multiple contacts, and so do your contacts, then you have yourself an epidemic.” It doesn’t matter if other kinds of contacts would be worse; what matters is the absolute numbers.

We can take steps to reduce the risk for teachers and others when they do go back – enforcing masks, ventilating classrooms, using more municipal buildings and recruiting more staff to minimise class sizes; the National Education Union has some ideas here. And as the year goes on teaching will be easier: in the summer, the virus will probably have abated and the weather will be warm enough to allow outdoor classes. Shortening or moving the summer holidays might be a good idea, although I dare say there are logistical challenges.

With the vaccines on their way, the cost-benefit equation changes: the costs of keeping children out of school indefinitely are obviously much higher than keeping them out for a few weeks. But it may be that the benefits of closing schools, at least in the case of primary schools, are fairly small as well. 

As Patel should have said: our lockdown rules must be as targeted as possible. In the case of schools, that means we shouldn’t treat the whole education system as a single undifferentiated mass. University students and older secondary-school children are essentially adults, in terms of their ability to spread the disease; they’re also more capable of managing without in-person teaching. Primary-aged children seem to be less of a concern from a virological point of view, and keeping them at home has more costs both for them and for wider society.

But in the end, we urgently need a concrete discussion of what tradeoffs we’re willing to make: as cold-blooded as “how many dead people are we willing to accept for a thousand pupil-years of in-person schooling?” It can’t be zero. And if primary schools really do end up being closed until September, that seems too high a price to pay.


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

I stopped reading this because it starts from the wrong premises. The idea that children should be sacrificed to “protect the NHS” shows a degree of callousness that is shocking in it’s brutal nature and even more shocking that it falls out of commentators mouth as if is a “truth” that must never be challenged. What the phrase actually means is children’s lives don’t matter!

We have to balance this. The NHS has been protected for 10 months. People who have non covid illness are paying with their lives, business owners and those working for SME’s will lose their jobs and their houses and children, when they grow up, will be less well educated meaning our economy will be smaller in the future. The problem is the NHS will have forgotten what these people have given up to “protect the NHS” and the NHS will demand more money and those people who gave up everything will be expected to pay more tax to funds those demands.

It’s time for the NHS to stand up and be counted. The vaccine its here, it’s now the NHS turn to do what it is supposed to do and “protect the people future”! The first and most important thing is to ensure children are back in school in February. Nurses and Doctors my be “burnt out” but that’s their job (or their vocation when they are looking for more money). Time to prove it. Your country needs you, so “protect the people future”!

The question is, is the NHS capable of doing what they have demanded of others!

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Yes, it’s the usual stuff. Tom hits on one or two things such as the insane stoking of the property market and the consequent contact with estate agents etc, but that aside it’s the standard acceptance of the lockdown strategy. He suggests that we didn’t know last March that the disease was 20 times more transmissible indoors. Well, we might now have known for certain, but many of us knew it instinctively and thought it insane that the authorities were telling everyone to ‘stay at home’. Personally I got outside as much as possible to build immunity through exercise and vitamin D. Whatever, government will always achieve precisely the opposite of that which it intends to achieve and there’s nothing you can do about it.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

My favourite was councils locking car parks in remote areas, or shutting parks. Everything we ever knew about infections is that you’re far safer in wide open outdoor spaces than you are in a shop.
There’s been no sense of proportion conveyed by many experts or the media.

Yes a 20yr old could catch it on a remote hillside from another passing walker, and they could die of it. However the odds of this are 100,000s if not millions of times less than “sick carer with no sick pay forced to go to work with no PPE in care home”.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

I also feel that they missed something else about school. We closed the nurseries, schools and universities and sent the children home. Those children had to be looked after and in many cases that increased the contact with grandparents because they were the only childcare available.

So many decisions have been taken in isolation yet the knock on effects have increased risk and that is before we even consider the cost in terms of health, mental health, social deprivation and economic destruction.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Yeap, but much of what they’ve done is all the law of unintended consequences.
This is niether left nor right, but just stupidity. The same goes for laws on drugs and prostituion, great way to make criminals rich and victims far worse off.
I suppose it’s because these laws are driven by the media, mob and idealogues.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If you Keep Windows open then clever SARS2 will pop out your window,but you’ll probably get a chest infection ..Brasil variation now proccupies boris and his minions ..

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

It’s not the nurses and doctors, it’s the people deciding that blocking vaccinations and medically trained volunteers with mountains of paperwork is the way forward. It’s those who’ve had months to plan for vaccinations and yet seem to be making it up as they go now.

It’s those who spent ages scarying us about the 2nd wave and didn’t do anything like enough to prepare for it.
It’s the education department for not improving online learning
And it’s the unions scoring political points
And it’s the media stirring up trouble and spreading hysteria.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

‘It’s those who spent ages scarying us about the 2nd wave and didn’t do anything like enough to prepare for it.’

Ha, ha, yes, that was one of the funniest/craziest things. Personally I was sceptical about a second wave but it seems that respiratory illnesses always strike in the autumn/winter. So it wasn’t exactly an unknown phenomenon. And still they did little or nothing to prepare for it.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

In fairness they’ve done some preperation, but not enough. To start with having massive sheltering programs for the vulnerable if and when infections picked up again would have been good.

Mitch Dobrenen
Mitch Dobrenen
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

Or maybe just open up the economy and get the incompetent government out of our lives.

Let us make our own decisions.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Lockdown 4.0 will be followed by 4th wave! as they DONT work. teaching unions are trying to pick a fight and losing .Yes innoculate teachers ….but most children &teenagers are or have good immunity..

Fiona Cordy
Fiona Cordy
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

Most of all the media.

George Lake
George Lake
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

The answer to your question in the final paragraph is obviously not!

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

As a parent I do not consider my children face a significant health risk from Covid, certainly not any risk that is life changing. However they are facing life changing risks as a result of damaged education.
Our young people are the unsung heroes of Covid – they are the least at risk and are paying a heavy price to protect others. they deserve to be treated as heroes and to have extra resources given to them,.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

But teachers may face a health risk.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

Indeed, just like supermarket workers and others who serve the public. if they do not want to go into school then they should be allowed to take voluntary furrow without any repercussions.

Mitch Dobrenen
Mitch Dobrenen
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

People healthy enough to work?
If they face a risk, find an option to not be in the classroom.

Robin Lambert
Robin Lambert
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

Many are suffering depression…and dont want to get up…daily diet of Conflating deaths by rather than with SARS2 is not good

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

As Mark Blyth puts it, we are all in the process of discovering that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of our health care system.

Matthew Bottomley
Matthew Bottomley
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

I put up a post earlier – I’ve analysed data from sheffield university (link with my post) that demonstrates that contrary to popular belief students are the source of the spread – they actually catch the virus in the host city – it than rages through their population due to the close relationships etc so appears as a spike – but the reality is there is no evidence that it affects transmission in the surrounding area – that simply goes on as before. I suspect the same is for schools.

Duncan Hunter
Duncan Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Well put. I always laboured under the impression that the sainted NHS was funded by us to protect us. But the dogma is that the NHS must be protected from us and must not be overwhelmed. This is promulgated by a Conservative government petrified of the NHS losing control on its watch. This of course is what this is really about.

Every winter the NHS is in crisis, at capacity, on the brink, poised to declare an emergency etc. The Guardian ever so reliably churns out the required headlines – a collection of the last 5-6 winters is available online. It never seems to improve, even allowing for the current pandemic. The NHS’s own data shows that bed occupancy was actually higher a year ago, but this is confined to the margins as it is not useful to the narrative.

None of this is to downplay the hard work and sacrifice of the frontline NHS staff. I wonder how they must feel, now that it is emerging that non-frontline NHS staff – ie management – are putting themselves at the front of the line for vaccination?!

Mark Widdowfield
Mark Widdowfield
3 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

I’m not sure burnout is in anyone’s job description. You’re starting from the wrong premise in your critique. This is not a zero sum game, if ITUs are overran with COVID patients those with other illnesses lose out too. Cancer patients cannot have life saving ops. Cardiac patients can’t have bypasses. Families will lose breadwinners. SMEs lose staff. The article provides a balanced and well researched perspective of the school closures. I heartily recommend it to you.

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago

I’m afraid you run into one big problem, families are losing breadwinners, SME are losing staff, business are closing not from Covid but the economic chill caused by our response to it. We can’t change the fact Covid is here, we can change the way we react to it

Gerard A
Gerard A
3 years ago

The article is so full of inconsistent argument, as Mr Chivers tries to fit his “lockdowns work” opinion into facts and studies that suggest they don’t ,that it was something of a 7 minute waste of my time. To which I have added another 2 minutes writing this.

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  Gerard A

Lockdowns clearly work if you select the ‘right’ dataset, i.e. compare Sweden to Norway.

Do not compare Sweden to Scotland for example. Lockdown happy Scotland has far higher excess deaths for 2020 and massive economic damage.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

Yes i think this is why more detail is needed – more investigation

Lockdowns having mixed results would on a high level suggest that they don’t work – as in there must be other factors involved.

But the devil will be in the detail as a lockdown in one country might be very different from that in another in terms of implementation.

Does anyone know of any body who is looking in detail into this? What are their findings?

LUKE LOZE
LUKE LOZE
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

Like you say it’s nearly impossible and very political.

There’s also the ‘which strain did various areas have’? The UK is now convinced that our recent bad form is due to a worse strain. Some in US have said the same about when the European variant hit them, vs the Chinese original – they dealt with the 1st one on the West coast with relative ease. I also remember Belgium claiming that their variant might have been worse and explain their high deaths. Japan did fine for the 9 months – but now it’s looking bad, despite their masks, fish diets, different culture etc.

Like 99.999999% of us I can’t offer any conclusions on this. I’m fairly sure that sadly the virus will evolve to spread more easily, it’s simple evolution. Due to being infectious days before showing symptoms and it’s relatively low and slow death rates it also hits quite a sweet spot.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  A Spetzari

There are at least 8 studies – published and some preprints, using a variety of statistical methods to show how various NPIs effect transmission.
The latest is a huge, ambitious study published in Nature with very sophisticated stats :
“Ranking the effectiveness of worldwide COVID-19 government interventions” 16 November
One of their conclusions is the same as yours :
“The emerging picture reveals that no one-size-fits-all solution exists, and no single NPI can decrease Rt below one. Instead, in the absence of a vaccine or efficient antiviral medication, a resurgence of COVID-19 cases can be stopped only by a suitable combination of NPIs, each tailored to the specific country and its epidemic age.”

stephen archer
stephen archer
3 years ago
Reply to  LUKE LOZE

Not even comparisons to Norway validates the lockdown argument. Since their early lockdown in the Spring they’ve subsequently avoided lockdowns although they have firmly bolted the barn door to the outside world and have kept the pandemic at a relatively low level.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

So: what’s the evidence of schools’ impact on transmission? It is, I am afraid, hugely uncertain.
Uncertain how? Children are as close to immune from this virus as a group can be. They might be carriers, presumably, and maybe just maybe spread that infection to someone in the home but that’s been the case since schools originated. They have always been petrie dishes with one child or another having some virus virtually every day of the year. In a more quaint era, that was part of developing an immune system.

Perhaps the question should be approached from the other end: what harm is being caused by the lockdowns? Other than one more academic year lost – because, really, does anyone honestly believe that an online environment is beneficial to six-year olds? – there is the loss of socialization skills, there is the inculcation of a mindset that human contact is somehow dangerous, and there are all sorts of stories of teens increasingly pondering suicide. How is any of this less worrisome than a virus who survival rate for ALL groups is >99%?

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Uncertain in that the studies that have been undertaken have a very wide range of conclusions. So taken together there is no clear pattern that can guide policy.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

What about infection rates or common sense or something other than instantly taking the most extreme measure?

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

I was referring to the studies that Tom cited as indicating uncertainty.

Not having read the studies I can’t say whether infection rates are considered.

I don’t know what you mean about instantly taking the most extreme measure. The way I see it the UK govt is very reluctant to take graduated measures in good time, with the delays resulting in quite heavy-handed measures being needed to correct the spread of the virus.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Do I need to remind you that there are staff in schools, that children don’t actually do the teaching?
Now I realise that teachers are the right’s favourite punching-ball, but if the science is to close businesses, close pubs and restaurants etc, then we can perhaps forgive teachers for wondering aloud why they should be in cramped classrooms with 150+ different spluttering children every single day…can’t we?
For my part, I share with Hitchens a rejection of pretty well all these measures, but few apart from hospital workers (in PPE) get as much exposure to other individuals as teachers do.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

My daughter is a teacher and we argue about this all day on the phone. I see your point – she says the same as you.
My point is that through the whole of 2020 our rubbish was collected every week without a blip and I see them every time with four guys sitting alongside each other in the cab of the truck. Every week through the lockdowns I have been going to my local Aldi supermarket and buying my groceries and in that time two members of their staff have gone off with Covid. Every day the trucks turn up with the food supplies without fail. The difference with the teachers is that they have strong unions.
If for the next two weeks the supermarket staffs got together and decided to close there would be a bit of a problem. But the teachers can get away with it because their service is non-critical. My daughter is a member of the NASUWT (here in Wales) and the day before the closure was announced the union called an emergency meeting to discuss strike action. My daughter (for a change) did not support a strike but she would have been too nervous to have voted against it.
If you believe that the teachers have a special case I suggest that everybody should go on strike and then see what the teachers would think after a couple of weeks. They would of course take the easy way out and blame the government.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I would suggest that a classroom (even with the windows open) for 6 hours / day is a very different environment compared with a supermarket (much larger and more open area with screens between people who have more extended ineractions and a mean visit time of maybe 30 mins or less ?) and your bin men in and out of their cab all day, in the fresh (?) air hitching and unhitching bins to the back of their lorry.

Transmission has different elements to it as described in the links in the article – by Muge Cevik in a wonderful Twitter thread dated 11 January and in the Vox article “Distance, time, activity, environment: 4 ways to think about Covid-19 risk.”

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

Please show the “science” that has been used to close bars, restaurants, and the like, because I’ve not seen any. I have, however, seen the opposite; science that suggests there is no logical reason for shutting down those places.

The shutdowns have been very selective: order churches to close but not liquor stores or porn shops; order mom-and-pop to close but not WalMart or Target. What is the logic involved there? If you’re not going to get the virus crossing paths in the deodorant aisle, then you’re not going to to get it by having a meal, either.

If there are teachers who fall into the at-risk category, they by all means, they should adopt appropriate safeguards. But there is no sense of proportion here. We treat every child as a disease vector and every teacher as a death waiting to happen. It’s ridiculous and it ignores the psychological harm being done to kids, not to mention the impact of learning time that is lost.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Paul Wright

Please show the “science” that has been used to close bars, restaurants, and the like, because I’ve not seen any. I have, however, seen the opposite; science that suggests there is no logical reason for shutting down those places.

The shutdowns have been very selective: order churches to close but not liquor stores; order mom-and-pop to close but not WalMart or Target. What is the logic involved there? If you’re not going to get the virus crossing paths in the deodorant aisle, then you’re not going to to get it by having a meal, either.

If there are teachers who fall into the at-risk category, they by all means, they should adopt appropriate safeguards. But there is no sense of proportion here. We treat every child as a disease vector and every teacher as a death waiting to happen. It’s ridiculous and it ignores the psychological harm being done to kids, not to mention the impact of learning time that is lost.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

To add to this, I live in the UK but not in England. Mom-and-pops are not closed but Tesco is selling books, birthday card and toys.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Here it has reached the point of civil disobedience, especially in the states with the most draconian measures. There are restaurant owners, for example, banding together and saying “we will open,” essentially daring authorities to react. Some sheriffs and police chiefs are on record as saying they will not arrest someone for daring to make a living.

This goes back to the first rule of rules: they have to make sense and no one has been able to explain why certain operations are singled out.

Duncan Hunter
Duncan Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Exactly. We have repeatedly been promised “the science” behind blanket closure or illogical limits on hospitality venues, but it has not been forthcoming. Serial evasiveness of this frequency and magnitude can only mean one thing: it doesn’t exist.

Likewise we were told the UK government were going to publish the cost-benefit analysis that supposedly justifies lockdowns as set against the cost (direct & indirect) to the economy. That was quietly shelved when our government ‘suddenly’ discovered a new strain of the virus that was being talked about in September. As soon as Hancock started down that narrative path, one just knew it wasn’t going to be released. That is, if the study was commissioned in the first place and actually exists. Again it has to be highly unlikely – or perhaps it was performed and the results were inconvenient to our government? That is a strong possibility and consistent with the government’s and its advisers selective use / presentation of data.

Case in point: Whitty & Vallance presented a graphic in late October (to justify Lockdown #2), purporting to show that bars, pubs, restaurants etc were the highest vectors for infection and transmission of the virus. At the time this was swallowed whole by our unquestioning, unjournalistic MSM. However several days later, it was admitted that two rather crucial sectors had been omitted from the chart: non-hospitality workplaces iI.e.

Duncan Hunter
Duncan Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Duncan Hunter

Sorry! IE offices, factories etc. and schools. Significant, eh? Convenient, undoubtedly – excluding 42% of the data universe was also going to (was intended to) make hospitality look bad.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Duncan Hunter

Cost of NPIs. Well SAGE had a go in July :
“Direct and Indirect Impacts of COVID-19 on Excess Deaths and Morbidity: Executive Summary 15 July”
Mainly covers morbidity and mortality but they do start to talk about money at Page 123 (out of 144).

Whitty and Vallance graphic. Well I guess this came from a collection of papers published and available as part of the SAGE minutes – all viewable online. The one I had a brief look at had 75 references :
Sars CoV 2 transmission routes and environments 22 October.

I don’t understand why people keep complaining that there is no reasoning behind government decisions – at least all the SAGE related material + the accompanying studies / papers that they have used is documented and freely available along with the minutes of all the meetings.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Risk of transmission is related to a bag of factors – time, space, ventilation, susceptibility of host, number of virions up the nose of the shedder, the amount of heavy breathing / talking / shouting going on etc etc

One of the better reviews IMHO (it has lots of good references) is this one in Clinical Infectious Diseases : “Severe acute respiratory syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS CoV 2) transmission dynamics should inform policy” September 23

There are also a ton of case studies detailing transmission in restaurants / churchs / buses / gyms and other enclosed environments from all over the planet. Bucketfuls of science available.

Fran Martinez
Fran Martinez
3 years ago

Tom Chivers, have you stopped to think that there are other things to be afraid of than covid?

Also, have you even noticed that excess deaths are still well within the range of previous winters?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Fran Martinez

Everybody who is young and feels safe talks about excess deaths. In a proper, humane society you would never hear figures of excess deaths expressed in public.
It is not humane or just to ask someone who is 70 years old to sacrifice themselves for a theory.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

In a proper, humane society, it is entirely reasonable to see the risk for what it is and not paint the virus as today’s version of the black death. And how disingenuous can you be? No one has old people to sacrifice themselves but the plain fact is that the virus is most dangerous to them, especially if they have other health issues. Instead, the public response has been to treat this as a universally equal threat, and those who are “young and feel safe” are watching themselves forced into unemployment, isolation, and all the bad outcomes that follow.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Don’t agree with you. The response from officialdom and the ONS figures clearly show that this is a threat to older people. You miss my point in that excess death figures mean nothing at all unless you see people as merely random numbers. If you stopped treating people for cancer or heart disease you would have higher excess deaths and the NHS would return to very efficient but you don’t even talk about it in a civilised society because very excess death has to be important. A doctor realises this when he takes the oath.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

All excess deaths does is lend some context to the matter. In the US, the focus on covid led to thousands of medical personnel being laid off, which translated into people or other diseases NOT being seen. The flu has apparently vanished as have any other respiratory conditions and one county listed Covid as the cause of death for two gunshot victims.

Treat the risk as it deserves to be treated – focus on those who are genuinely at risk, which is not the entire population.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Yes, I really do agree with you. I suppose my point is that people who contribute to UnHerd and actually think and discuss things are in a great minority. Then the majority pick up the issue of ‘Excess Deaths’, don’t really look into it and carry on as normal. Somewhere there has to be middle ground which works for everybody.
Today I went to the supermarket for my weekly visit and I saw a lot of older people chatting in the aisles, treating their visit as a social occasion. These people are at risk because they have behaved in the same way for so long that they literally don’t know how to change. To them, if not-at-risk people appear to carry on as normal then it sends a message that everything is OK. For me, trying to see all sides of this, I don’t see an answer except for a lockdown.

Anakei greencloudnz
Anakei greencloudnz
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

These people are at risk because they have behaved in the same way for so long that they literally don’t know how to change. To them, if not-at-risk people appear to carry on as normal then it sends a message that everything is OK

Or they know the risks and are willing to take them
Old people are being treated like children. They are told it’s for their own good that they can’t live the last few years of life seeing their families and being part of society. instead they are locked up, and deprived of stimulation and social contact. My MiL is severely depressed as she lives alone and sees hardly anyone, although her family try their best. She is insulted that they sit in the front garden and won’t come in for a cup of tea. At 87 it’s touch and go if she will wake up on any morning, so depriving her of the joy of her family is cruel indeed.
I have a lot of contact with older people my Tai Chi group and many of them are adamant that they would not lock down by choice, and are horrified that children aren’t being sent to school and are being deprived of a life to protect them.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

The average age of Covid deaths is close to the national life expectancy – on average it is not having a significant impact on longevity.
Every death is sad but not every death is a tragedy. I take a lot of funerals, a funeral of a 90 year old is typically an event where the family can give thanks for a long life and celebrate it.
A funeral of a child is a tragedy that goes beyond the immediate family and often has a deep impact on a community. I have had the task of leading a funeral for a 31 year old who took his own life. The sense of loss and tragedy was immense.

These are things that we must talk about in a mature way. Death is a reality, we all have to die of something. The mark of civilisation is not how long we can keep people alive irrespective of the quality of life but the quality of life they live when they are alive. Our response to Covid has had a huge negative effect on the quality of life for most people.

We must debate the ethics of this

We must also debate how we are treating those who are most at risk from Covid. I know a very ill old man of 86 who has suffered poor health for a number of years. His main joy is his family. He has clearly told me that he want to ‘live’ what little life he has left rather than live in isolation and in fear. He is one of those we are trying to protect but we are destroying all his joy just in case he becomes a covid statistic.

To have this debate is a caring thing to do – But unfortunately there its a narrative that to discuss such things means you don’t care and are happy to let people die – which is not true.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

Our response to Covid has had a huge negative effect on the quality of life for most people.
The reticence in confronting this malicious truth is just staggering. Millions forced into unemployment, who knows how many to face bankruptcy, increased cases of abuse/overdose/suicide, yet none of it matters to those in charge.

Studies done after the last recession attributed up to a half million deaths to that event, and there was no health factor involved. Just economic harm which lead to harmed health. That’s going to happen here and either those in charge are unaware of the outcome or are deliberately aiming for it.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago

Thank you for this balanced article.
The government would appear to believe that closing schools is a necessary measure to help stop the spread of Covid. Protecting the NHS seems to be the primary objective of Lockdown. We therefore need to protect frontline Doctors and Nurses who are in danger of catching Covid and transmitting it. All of this seems perfectly logical.

But schools are between 35% and 50% full of key workers children. The very people we are trying to protect are sending their children to school (an environment the government believes spreads Covid). Covid is therefore being spread between families whose parents work at different hospitals.

This simply does not make sense.

The BBC are trying to divert our attention by suggesting that the main spreaders of Covid are people taking walks in the countryside more than a few miles from where they live. Meanwhile no mention is made of the risk posed by our hospital front line workers children spending every day in the Covid cauldron of school.

Mark H
Mark H
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

I very much like the idea of progressively opening schools by age. Our kids are teenagers and coping quite well with remote lessons.

However I must disagree on schools being a “Covid cauldron”. That has certainly been demonstrated to be true of universities, though and I think you comment may be valid when it comes to older teenagers, too.

But with the current setup of key workers kids only, there are few enough KW kids (maybe about 10% of the class in the case of my kids’ friendship groups) that the school can maintain distancing between the teenagers.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark H

I totally agree – School are not a cauldron of Covid and there is no evidence supporting this. I was being ironic. the government policy is to treat them as a dangerous place while sanctioning the attendance of the children of health workers. Totally inconsistent.

Steve Dean
Steve Dean
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

Is it just the BBC doing this?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

In Wales children of key workers are not going to their normal schools. The schools are working in a rota for those children and are taking special care – whatever that means.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

There was a decent report on ITV news last night 12 Jan (its on youtube) explaining how, once again, covid patients are being discharged into care homes, care homes that are mainly full of non-covid guests…. the whole cycle is being repeated.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott
3 years ago

“The lockdown rules must be targeted”

“Shouldn’t treat…the system as a single undifferentiated mass”

“It’s largely been all or nothing”

If only someone could come up with some form of, oh I don’t know, maybe we could call it targeted protection rather than treating everyone the same, regardless of their risk or situation…

David Bell
David Bell
3 years ago
Reply to  Ben Scott

As long as you don’t name it something like “The Great Barrington Declaration” that will be OK

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Ben Scott

I agree. For some reason anything to do with ‘shielding’ is anathema to policy makers. But there needs to be a degree of this. We know who is most at risk (elderly and those with certain underlying conditions) we know where Covid is being predominantly transmitted – (in hospitals and care homes). We therefore have a he’d start in dealing with it. Blanket policies with police patrolling National Trust carparks is unlikely to have a significant impact. (however a slight links can be made which seems to justify these actions) Properly protecting the vulnerable and keeping health workers and their families away from transmission risk is the answer. Meanwhile the rest of society needs to play their part in keeping transmission low.

I think it would be helpful if this who are at low risk do not use Supermarket delivery services as these need to be reserved for the vulnerable. But this is not part of the narrative.

Unfortunately this is another debate that is suppressed because it smacks of ‘shielding’.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

I think this problem might be bigger than you might think :
“UK prevalence of underlying conditions which increase the risk of severe COVID-19 disease: a point prevalence study using electronic health records ” published in August. A quote :

“The population at risk of severe COVID-19 (aged ù‰„70 years, or with an underlying health condition) comprises 18.5 million individuals in the UK, including a considerable proportion of school-aged and working-aged individuals.”
The paper lists in excrutiating detail who they included in their risk calculations which you can judge for yourself.

Graham Dunn
Graham Dunn
3 years ago

The ONS data does not bear this out in reality.

Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
Elaine Giedrys-Leeper
3 years ago
Reply to  Graham Dunn

Which ONS data ?

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

These claims that a massive percent of the population is in a vastly higher risk category due to pre-existing conditions have limits to them. Specifically, there’s the mathematical limit that’s referred to as Markov’s inequality.

The listed population total is a bit over 25% of the population of the UK. Therefore, the overall risk for someone that population can be – *at most* – about 4x the risk for someone in the population as a whole.

That’s just a mathematical identity. Even if the risk to the other ~75% of the population is 0, there only so much aggregate risk to be accounted for by the other 25% of the population.

In practice, the risk of COVID to much of the population is lower but not zero – though children have a risk that’s close to 0. There are also some identifiable subgroups – elderly and frail, for example – who face COVID risk far higher than 4x the risk for someone in the total population. Those factors both also inform “just how much risk there is to go around” for some of those 18.5 million individuals.

While I haven’t seen the specific ONS data referenced by Graham, I strongly suspect he’s referring to this mathematical identity showing up in the numbers.

Colin Haller
Colin Haller
3 years ago
Reply to  Ben Scott

This would almost make sense if the population weren’t marbled throughout with the immunocompromised.
Since vulnerable individuals don’t (and arguably cannot) live in isolation somewhere away from the supposedly unthreatened, this “targeted protection” is functionally indistinguishable from magic.

Julian Hartley
Julian Hartley
3 years ago

The intended audience for this article seems to be people who both (A) still respect the Government’s narrative and strategy – such as it is – and (B) think that lockdown is causing harm and would ideally be avoided. I can’t say for certain, but I feel like that group of people is quite small.

bcthimn
bcthimn
3 years ago
Reply to  Julian Hartley

What is the scientific term for “I feel like” and do you know what the margin of error for “feel like” is?

Just curious

Terry Needham
Terry Needham
3 years ago
Reply to  bcthimn

He is pondering.
Just as you are doing.
Okay?

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

When primary schools close because of an impending snow fall, is that to protect the children? Personally I don’t think so.
It is either to protect the teachers, who travel further to work or it is to avoid litigation if a child is (mildly) injured in some way.
So the decision about closing schools is not just a government issue. It is about the attitude of the teaching unions and the parents. Unfortunately, we live in an era where everybody blames
the government for everything because it is an easy target which can’t fight back. It is time that individual teachers (I know a few who agree with me) make a point of ignoring their unions. It is time that litigious parents were fought tooth and nail as a deterrent to further action.

Matthew Bottomley
Matthew Bottomley
3 years ago

I’ve looked into this using the data from the ONS I talk about it here – but essentially what the actual evidence shows is that students/etc do not spread the virus – they are more akin to the canary in the coalmine. They do catch it but it rages through them with little impact on them or indeed the outside world.

What we have here is often a case of confirmation bias – simply because people see spikes in schools and assume it must grow there – rather than as the data suggests – it’s around the neighbourhood and this is just a small pocket where due to the close proximity of the individuals concerned it spreads quickly.

https://medium.com/panangel

pidgemoredaniel
pidgemoredaniel
3 years ago

We have to get primary schools back at the very least. I chair two schools one secondary and large and one primary very small and independent. Both schools offer a full structured day of virtual teaching with very close to 100%participation. The little school has 30% of pupils in as Key workers with some vulnerable pupils too. No one moans, no one goes on the Tele and cries or says it not safe. They just do an outstanding job. Spare a thought for the parents at home working trying to supervise a 5 year old or maybe two and work at the same time. The teaching unions are an utter disgrace. They opposed schools being open, they opposed schools last year for undertaking virtual teaching on safeguarding grounds, they opposed blended teaching and they are all now think they are experts in safety and public health which clearly they are not. Primary must reopen soon and head teachers should not be rationing places for key workers. Teaching unions need to take a leaf from the shop workers Union approach which has been supportive and professional.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

Could it be that our “lockdowns” have been so full of holes that they have been ineffective, but that a total lockdown of say one month last April / May or during the school holidays would have been both more effective and less disruptive. We seem to be half-baked and as a result never seem to be able to deprive the virus of new avenues to exploit. The fact that we have been allowing international flights with not even screening to take place should tell you that there was never any serious intention to actually “lock” down, just to give the appearance of doing something.

G Matthews
G Matthews
3 years ago

I strongly disagree with the last paragraph. The premise of this paragraph is that “under our crappy ability to lockdown” we need to make cold-blooded choices. Or we could actually do a lockdown that doesn’t leak water like a sieve. For example, we are currently in a “tier 5 lockdown” and yet covid patients are again being discharged into care homes which concurrently have other non-covid patients. This is insanity. The question is, why cannot some care homes be designated as covid only and others not? Why can some hospitals not be similarly designated as – oh let’s call them infectious disease hospitals. I understand the problem on the NHS side is that it is agreed that hospitals should be segregated but due to management separation issues nobody wants THEIR hospital to be designated as the covid death hospital. Hence we are going round in circles again, hospitals and care homes are once again the cauldrons – not schools – and the over 80s waiting for Godot are being fed into the furnace.

Nick Whitehouse
Nick Whitehouse
3 years ago

Interesting ideas.
But how would the Government be able to instigate it, with such a wide variety of analysis.
Would the teachers union allow it?
Would it be “unfair” to somebody, somewhere, so that the papers hammer the “unfairness”?

James
James
3 years ago

Prioritising the vaccination of primary teachers would likely satisfy the union.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  James

Nothing, but nothing, will ever satisfy the teaching unions except for the closure of all schools forever and the retirement of all teachers on a full pension from the moment they qualify as teachers.

Paul Wright
Paul Wright
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I was teaching in the UK during the first wave; it was actually the parents withdrawing their children which was the first noticeable effect. Teachers stayed, then the government put a stop to everything.
Until it is shown that children do not spread the disease (possible, but do we know?), then why should teachers share cramped classrooms with 150+ potential spreaders per day?
What do you do exactly?

ps. I am now teaching in France, mask on, in front of 150+ per day, and I’m nearly six decades old.

Richard Turpin
Richard Turpin
3 years ago

I’ve been appalled at the way the left wing ideologues have seized upon this ‘opportunity’ to do whatever they can to disrupt schools opening and in doing so, have put many Heads and their learning communities under siege. The irony is, the most vulnerable children across the country have been used as political pawns in an idealogical culture war that is pervading education at almost every level with COVOD -19 a convenient guise.
The situation hasn’t been helped by the widening of the definition ‘Key Workers’ nor of Mr Williamson promising the earth to those in need. I believe Primary Schools should be opened as soon as possible for all the reasons stated. With the younger children, the digital teaching as much as young “Techsters” would love us to believe, is not anywhere near as good or as effective as having a teacher and peer to peer contact on a daily basis.Human contact and interaction is priceless.

Having a young child staring at a screen for a prolonged of period of time as research has shown, has a number of negative health implications on their eyesight, brainwaves and posture. We have neighbours who worry their children are pale, incapable of reading emotional stress or signals and are lacking in empathy….who spend half their time playing games where they shoot and blow people up….go figure.

Michelle Johnston
Michelle Johnston
3 years ago

Every transmission case in Quarantine in New Zealand is forensically analysed for its transmission point. It is always high touch surfaces.

In March to bring transmission down to zero in New Zealand everyone sanitised hard and wore gloves and went contactless no one wore masks.

Those two facts suggests transmission through high touch surfaces is important.

As regards children up to the age when their behaviour takes on adult like qualities the study produced in Sweden (went to school) verses Finland (did not) showed children receive the Virus from their parents and the outcomes for children and teachers was neutral.

My daughter is a secondary teacher with two primary age children in Bolton. She finally picked up the Virus from a high touch surface in Lockdown in November felt poorly for a couple of days and is fine. She gave it to her husband who had man flu and is now fine. All her children who have positive results feel poorly for a couple of days and its now accepted fact that 1/3 rd of all cases are asymptomatic (government guidance).

There is a remarkably simple way to deal with this.

Make 75 + Comorbid shield until they are vaccinated. They cause all the pressure on the health service with 225 per 100,000 85+ hospital admissions and 30 times more admissions than the 45 64 age group (ONS).

If this group approach hospital and they are judged to be to frail to survive offer them in home palliative care. In Italy in March when they did this in certain regions death rates went down.

Everyone else goes back to normal and develops herd immunity.

CoMorbid people can opt out of work or work from home and after 12 months if they are still in a voluntary state of ill heath they are made redundant.

Letting 50,000,000 peoples lives be affected by the NHS being overwhelmed by 34,000 + hospitalisations when 92% of deaths in hospital are comorbid and 96% over 60 and 54% over age 85 and when 27,000 excess death to non Cars 2 causes have occurred at home in 2020 makes no sense at all.

The school element of this is entirely obvious they and their parents are by every parameter low risk and if a number of teachers are obese and 50+ then give them compassionate grounds for a moratorium and insist they deal with their obesity.

Dave Tagge
Dave Tagge
3 years ago

It’s an odd omission that Mr. Chivers doesn’t even mention one factor in future rates of COVID infections and hospitalizations.

Specifically, he doesn’t make any mention of the impact of natural immunity acquired through previous infection, and the large – and growing – number of people who have such immunity.

It’s admittedly challenging to estimate what that impact will be, but he mentions the possible seasonal impact of winter as an unknown but potential impact.

Additionally, any impact would of course come from the combination of this population plus vaccine doses given to ~20% of the UK population by mid-February. (The two groups aren’t fully additive, as some fraction of the people receiving vaccine doses are already immune through exposure, even if they never confirmed that with a test).

Mitch Dobrenen
Mitch Dobrenen
3 years ago

Maybe I’m missing something. This is the second article to ask this ridiculous question.

Will schools be open by summer?

Open just in time to close for the summer?

None of these articles suggest going to school all summer.

Try to get 20 kids that have been cooped up and/or free to do whatever they want to for the last 12 months to sit still and listen to a boring teacher who is unhappy that they actually have to stand up and work. Heaven forbid!

And I would suggest that all students repeat at least one year. They probably didn’t learn a thing over the last 12 months except that the government is tyrannical and their parents aren’t bold enough to refuse to comply with ridiculous rules.

john h
john h
3 years ago

What about the third wave and the fourth ? This will never end. It is the biggest con of all time. This is just a badish flu and the stats will show this to be exactly that as time clicks on. In the meantime our living is being destroyed. Why does no one talk about Sweden and how their economy is functioning as normal. They have absorbed the virus and dealt with it. Lies, lies, lies.