With blasé buffoonery, Boris Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show, ordering all parents to send their children back to school from Monday. This comes ahead of SAGE warnings (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) that sending children back to school would be a disaster for public health amidst the more transmissible Covid-19 variant.
The PM argued that keeping primary schools open outside of London was in the children’s best interests. Nobody, teachers included, are dismissing the benefits of being in school. Still, we are in a pandemic and currently face the same, if not worse, situation as we did in March. Keeping schools open as the UK records its highest ever 57,752 new Covid infections in a single day, is a direct threat to public health.
Johnson argued that keeping children in schools is paramount to stabilising their life chances, maintaining their mental health and reducing overall inequality. Areas that he, nor his government, have never been concerned with before. During this pandemic, the government has been using leftist appeals to get the public on their side – even when their policy decisions have been dangerous to public health.
By using the importance of protecting mental health and life chances – Johnson has constructed a tool to justify keeping schools open, as it appeals to the hearts and minds of the general population, at a point in time, where his public support is plummeting. But Johnson, and the rest of the Conservative party, have frankly, always turned a blind eye to these very issues. Why should we believe they are sincere about them now?
Following another characteristic U-Turn, the government recently announced that all primary schools in London would close for the first two weeks of term, following the Christmas holidays. This comes as a result of the rising transmission of the new strain of Coronavirus. However, this has also been seen in other South East areas, including Essex, whose primary schools, made the drastic decision overnight to close – despite the government stating they should stay open.
Secondary schools and Sixth Forms will re-open on a staggered basis during the first three weeks in January. The education secretary, Gavin Williamson, claimed this would allow for mass testing which will protiritse exam year students in Year 11 and Year 13. Despite this mixed bag of policy that blatantly ignores the scientists’ advice, it also does little to protect the teachers themselves and the rest of the community that schools are advertently apart of. A member of SAGE, Mark Walport, told Andrew Marr on 3rd January that,
Although the science tells us children are less at risk of developing serious cases of Covid – only directing education policy in line with their health needs avoids the bigger picture. Children could become rampant transmitters of this new strain, infecting teachers, parents, grandparents, families, and the wider community. And yes, we should be concerned about this new variant because it is “hugely” more transmissible than the first strain. Early tests have also shown it is spreading more quickly amongst secondary school-age children.
Despite this, the government has a clear line – schools must stay open to protect children’s mental health and their prospects. But during the pandemic, they’ve cared for one political reason – getting the public on their side.
In 2018, under another Conservative government, the UK came 23rd in inequalities during the primary school years – in light of us being the world’s fifth-largest economy. Additionally, children cannot perform to the best of their abilities without proper nourishment. Between 2019-19, 4.2 million children were living in poverty in the UK, which is 30% of children.
This summer, it took Manchester United footballer’s efforts, Marcus Rashford, for the PM to draw his attention to the issue. Even now, Rashford is still fighting for a permanent increase of £20 to Universal Credit payments to families. Campaigners have estimated that 700,000 people, including 300,000 children, will be pushed into poverty if the universal credit top-up is abandoned.
Protecting children’s mental health is a serious issue – but one that Johnson and the rest of his cabinet – have only given airtime to during the pandemic. Indeed, mental health concerns have become their party’s buzzword during the pandemic, having been used as a defence against more lockdowns, and now, for keeping schools open despite the evident public health threat.
But mental health is with us all the time – not just during a pandemic. The persistent underfunding of the NHS during the past decade of austerity prepared us for the worst. Investing in mental health is a broader, long-term problem that keeps schools open during a pandemic and will not solve.
Instead of using mental health as an excuse to keep schools open and fail to protect public health, the Conservatives should tackle the root cause. Which, for so many of us, including children, is influenced by wealth inequalities, poverty of all kinds, and unemployment. But most of all, a straining health care system already buckling under pressure before the pandemic, is an imperative asset needed to tackle mental health, that we can’t be without.
Johnson ignores the threat to public health that keeping schools open promotes, and only manifests further problems for the NHS. Suppose he and his party truly cares about reducing childhood inequality, poverty and improving mental health. In that case, he’ll do the right thing – close the schools and protect the NHS from being overwhelmed at all costs.