Why we need to close schools

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Yesterday the government announced a range of measures to protect the public from the Covid-19 pandemic.

As a former Assistant Headteacher, parent and more importantly son, I am concerned that this has not extended to schools. Here’s why:

1. The statistics.

Today the UK has 55 deaths. Yesterday we had 35. This is similar to the rise in deaths in Italy and in Spain, which saw 34 deaths on 1st Mar, then 52 deaths on 2 Mar (Italy) and 36 then 55 on 10-11 March for Spain. Despite assuring us last week that we are not like Italy, so far we are pretty similar – just 2 weeks behind.

2. The “more harm than good” argument.

This is false for two reasons. First, the idea that workers will leave frontline jobs to look after their children only applies to one tier of education – primary schools. It does not apply to secondary schools, sixth form colleges or universities. Not one journalist has challenged this point, so far as I have seen.

Secondly, no-one else in the world agrees. Why? Because there is one overriding priority right now “You have to slow the spread of the virus.” The government was last Thursday asking us to trust them to time the peak of the demand. But as the US Chief Immunologist, Dr Fauci bluntly made clear on Saturday, this is something you cannot do. Try to be too clever and you will lose time and lives.

3. The economic argument.

This is a non-starter, or at least should be. Governments in most developed economies around the world are making clear that they will support all those who lose income and have to stay at home – whatever it takes.

This is a wartime situation and everything has changed. OK, but what about the economy collapsing? One possibility is you need not close all schools everywhere at the same time. London and Torbay had early cases of the virus. Other areas have taken longer to be affected.

So we can close in hotspots and wait for others potentially days or weeks later. Assuming we test, and keep track of the virus, that is. Japan is trying a partial closure approach, with year groups and classes with confirmed cases sent home, staggering the process but still slowing down the spread of the virus.

4. The alternative.

What happens if we don’t close schools is, frankly unknown, as no other government in the world with this many deaths has stood by and failed to act as we are doing. But we can assume it’s going to be worse, not better than the impact in places where schools have been closed nationally and the spread of the virus slowed- at least for now.

To make clear what this means: in two weeks Italy went from where we are now to 2,158 deaths as of today. Spain went from the same point to 335 deaths within 5 days. Both closed schools, Italy on 4 March, just 2 days after where the UK is right now. Dr Whitty may believe the virus needs to spread to limit the impact of a second wave, but no-one inside or outside of government can seriously contemplate having a worse situation than this.

5. The “trust” argument.

I am struck by how often it comes down to this: why don’t you, a non-expert, just shut up and trust the Chief Medical Officer? Well, two reasons. One: history is littered with examples of well-meaning and eminent professionals making appalling mistakes.

So why should I believe, without investigating the argument at all, that this time it’s different? Secondly, and very obviously, experts in every other country in the world, and the World Health Organisation, are taking a vastly different approach to the UK. It is almost as if foreign experts don’t count because Britain is different. That could possibly be true, but it is vanishingly unlikely.

I am volunteering and helping my community, and I urge others to do the same however they can.

* Lee Howgate is a Lib Dem activist who lives in South Devon. He is a senior leader at a large comprehensive school in Cornwall, and formerly worked for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with experience in Russia and the EU. You can follow him on tumblr where he posts as leetheliberal

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  • Laurence Cox 17th Mar '20 - 1:29pm

    China, having been the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak is now reporting only 21 new cases in a day, with 20 of them having come from people arriving in the country and only 1 case of internal transmission. If you can get the number of new cases down to these low levels, then you can go back to the tried-and-tested approach of contact tracing and isolating those with the disease and everybody they have come into contact with.

  • It is of course primary schools where the children are most at risk under not mal circumstances. Children are off school in the summer, but the parents have time to prepare. There needs to be detailed advice for everyone at the earliest possible time. There needs to be particular advice given to parents of children with special needs.
    Yesterday it was announced that many people should self-isolate. No doubt true, but people need advice on what is being proposed and why. We are told that everyone needs to play a part, but it is not a question of giving orders but of recognising that everyone needs the information to plan their lives to reduce the risk of infection for everyone.
    Our basic problem seems to be that we have no idea how to work together as a society to solve our problems.

  • John Marriott 17th Mar '20 - 1:39pm

    Interesting not only how different countries are adopting different measures to combat Covid-19 but how their populations are reacting. While most are listening to what the experts are saying, Americans, or quite large numbers of them, appear to be flocking to the gun stores. Says it all, doesn’t it?

  • I have to ask the question.

    Is it even fair on pupils having to take GCSE and A levels in these circumstances?

    Can you imagine the pressure some of these students are under, exams are stressful in order circumstances let alone this.

    How can it be right that a student gets less than expected grade results that can affect their whole future because exams went ahead in these extraordinary circumstances?

    That does not seem fair to me on students and many having to repeat the exams again anyway as they did not get the grades they needed

  • Simon McGrath 17th Mar '20 - 2:21pm

    Its tricky one. We either take the advice of the Chief Medical Officer or ( checks linked in) , an English teacher. How to decide ?

  • Helen Dudden 17th Mar '20 - 7:47pm

    How about working parents? Costly child care and that could be difficult. There is a lack of affordable child care anyway.
    Mothers have the allotted time limit for maternity care, then have to return.
    If you can afford a nanny, or in house child care then no problem.
    That’s the reason for keeping schools open. Sad that life is not affordable unless you both work.

  • Peter Martin 17th Mar '20 - 8:19pm

    @ Helen,

    You ask: “How about working parents?”

    Some friends of ours with whom, incidentally, we’ve been in relatively recent close contact, had a phone call from their son’s school today to ask if they could pick him up because he’d started to cough! Apparently he wasn’t the only one! There aren’t supposed to be any cases around here but as there are unlikely to be tests on these and other suspected cases I’m not at all convinced about that.

    Consequently they are now both self isolating. As their jobs don’t lend themselves to taking their work home, they can’t do them!

    So maybe having their son in school wasn’t such a good idea after all.

  • There are certainly no easy answers. A strict lockdown will undoubtedly bring different kinds of suffering to some people – think of elderly people who get ill or have a fall and wait longer before someone finds them, vulnerable children confined 24/7 with abusive family members, the effect of isolation of those with mental health problems or suicidal thoughts.

    The greater good may be served by closing schools and putting the country under lockdown, but it’s no panacea.

  • Tony Greaves 17th Mar '20 - 8:57pm

    The oddest suggestion is that schools should close but teachers should then run child care centres for children of essential workers (rather more of them than just the NHS) and those whose parents have no choice but to continue working. I suppose they wold locate such centres in the local schools. Whatever happens it’s the poorest families who are going to come out worst from all this.

  • John Marriott 17th Mar ’20 – 1:39pm……………… Americans, or quite large numbers of them, appear to be flocking to the gun stores. Says it all, doesn’t it?…………

    It says, “That last pack of toilet paper is mine”, rather well

  • Matt asks “Is it even fair on pupils having to take GCSE and A levels in these circumstances? Of course not, but teachers have to adapt to the circumstances.

    My local University has halted all face to face teaching from today. Lecturers( young and old, mostly old) are going on a crash program in the provision of online education, to be rolled out from next Monday, to ensure that students can complete degree studies and still graduate this summer.

    Lenin once wrote “There are decades when nothing happens and there are weeks when decades happen.”

  • My Son is an Assistant Head at a Derbyshire Primary School (makes me feel much older saying that!), he believes they will be shutting later this week.
    The logic is that the government can then say they have only closed schools for two weeks, after that the Easter break kicks in for another two weeks, thus the schools have a month of closures. I’m not sure that would be long enough to see this through to any sort of peak infection rate.
    This will cause big problems for all but the most wealthy parents.

  • Geoffrey Dron 18th Mar '20 - 8:43am

    A hard choice, but closure is probably justified if provision for children on free school meals is made.

  • We should also call for using mobile phone app to track covid confirmed and suspected cases like both South Korea and Taiwan are doing (both are democracies).

    I am a liberal but also a pragmatist, and as far as I know this solution does work in assisting social distancing in practice. By the way, I am a social liberal and a progressive, this means I have no problems with government intervention in the best interest of the society.

  • “Its tricky one. We either take the advice of the Chief Medical Officer or ( checks linked in) , an English teacher. How to decide ?”

    Well – we could take the advice of the WHO; and of China, South Korea, and several other nations which have been relatively successful in limiting the spread of the disease; and of almost all the rest of Europe; and of multiple qualified doctors and epidemiologists in the UK as well. Or we could take the advice of Donald Trump, Aung San Suu Kyi, and Boris Johnson. It’s a tricky one.

  • Simon McGrath – I am very certain that I will not take advice from a bunch of contrarians – I mean, the so-called experts that tried to pursue “herd immunity” as a goal (against the advice from WHO and the international scientific establishment) before having to U-turn. Public health is not a field in which people can play the contrarian game.

  • Peter Martin 18th Mar '20 - 1:13pm

    The economic argument. This is a non-starter, or at least should be.”

    I’m not sure about that. We’ve just spent the last 4 years or so arguing over Brexit in largely economic terms. It was essentially about whether we’d be slightly better or slightly worse off if, and according to our own opinion, we left or remained in the EU.

    It wasn’t about whether or not our economy collapsed, as it could well do if we don’t get it right. The history of the 20th century shows just what devastation can arise if economies do collapse and create the conditions for the rise of the far right.

    This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t close the schools. I think we probably do. However, we do need to formulate a potential exit plan. We can’t live under lock down indefinitely. It’s wishful thinking that just a few weeks for everyone in self isolation is going to fix the problem.

  • It isnt a fine judgement, there are almost 9 million school children plus their teachers deliberately being kept at school, deliberately spreading the virus around. Many will now pass the virus on to parents or grandparents who otherwise would not contract it, some will die – simply because MPs and Ministers were in denial. We have relatively few households with 3 generations unlike Spain and Italy. Children interact a lot over the internet – noone plays daily with 30 classmates or even 60 over on a non school day, modelling must be from 1950s if it says kids interact as widely outside school as in. Other countries kept schools going with a skeleton staff for kids of keyworkers. Also companies lengthened work days to reduce mixing at work and make it easier for working parents to also cover childcare with split shifts. That we still have schools open now is an absolute scandal. Delivering FSM alongside meals on wheels is totally doable. I hope the person responsible is jailed for keeping the schools open in a pandemic.

  • Being just a few weeks behind China and the other countries where the coronavirus first spread means that we have the relative luxury of learning from their experience.

    But check the chart from Visual Capitalist linked below; hover over the cluster of country curves and it will highlight just one.

    It shows the doubling time for the epidemic in the UK is just less than three days. Compare Singapore or Japan to see what could and should be done. The ultimate cost difference between leaders like them and laggards like the UK will be stupendous.


  • Now it’s official policy that all schools will close. From the start thgis government has been ‘behind the curve’; sporting events, isolation, etc. they have been playing catch-up.

    I have no faith in any announcement that comes from them and their tame experts; thankfully, at long last we are following the European model, a model that before each U-turn has been decried as wrong>

  • @expats

    “government has been ‘behind the curve’; sporting events, isolation, etc. they have been playing catch-up.
    I have no faith in any announcement that comes from them and their tame experts; thankfully, at long last we are following the European model, a model that before each U-turn has been decried as wrong”

    My comment is probably not going to be popular with many on here due to their strong liberal values and freedom. But how long is Boris going to take before he goes down the measures of “enforced” lockdowns like other European countries.
    Clearly, these “advisory” measures are not sinking through to some people. How many unnecessary people are going to get infected before he takes the right measures?

    I am going off my head at my own family here, as u all know I have vulnerable elderly parents coming to live with me in a couple of weeks time to get them through this. I need a couple of weeks to get everything in place for them.
    Today my sister had to go for an xray at hospital due to having a cough since xmas, and what does she do after being at the Hospital, she went round to visit my mother and father…needless to say the language has been colourful and I am asking myself why I am worrying myself sick and doing all that I can to protect my own family when the rest behave like this

  • The choices here are economic collapse and higher death toll versus economic collapse and fewer death toll. Economic collapse is unavoidable, and the only path forward is to transform the economy into a war economy focusing on medical supplies and equipment as well as other basic necessities.

  • I’m still confused…An employment lawyer was on TV last night answering questions,,,

    Q…If I’m not ill but follow government ADVICE to avoid public transport, keep distance, etc. and stay off work can I lose my job?
    A… Unless the government changes from Advice to INSTRUCTION you can lose your job by not going to work…


  • Phil Beesley 19th Mar '20 - 11:24pm

    expats: “Now it’s official policy that all schools will close. From the start thgis government has been ‘behind the curve’; sporting events, isolation, etc. they have been playing catch-up.”

    I agree that government is playing catch up with circumstances which might appear to be inevitable. However it is also necessary to understand that catching up requires some unusual decisions.

    Schools had to stay open because schools employ hundreds of thousands of people and are used by millions, and it is a massive process to turn schools into a childcare service for people performing essential work. There’s need for a ‘signal’ — schools to close within x days — for everyone to adjust.

    Apply similar thinking to closure of cafes, pubs, hotels and motorway service stations. Or shutting down parts of public transport. Assume that what has been announced today will change shortly, and decisions will become more ostensibly sensible. Stuff takes time and some people have to move around.

    Some cafes and hotels will reorganise as a network of safe places for transport workers to feed and rest. I daresay that councils are making decisions about how to house homeless people which would have seemed impossible at other times.

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