Covid-19: The Continuing Saga

27 Aug

Covid-19 has dominated our lives during the Spring Term 2020 and is likely to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.     The world-wide pandemic has had a devastating and mainly negative impact.  Post-Covid-19 is likely to see an altogether different landscape from the one we viewed pre-pandemic.  No area of life will be left unaffected, including education.

Most businesses have suffered as also people – vis-à-vis their economic condition.  However, the negative impact was mitigated by Chancellor Rishi Sunak, who pumped billions into the British economy.  Who would have thought that this would have happened in December 2019 when Boris Johnson triumphantly trumpeted that we would – come hail or shine – be leaving the European Union by the end of 2020?

The government recognised that it made some serious mistakes.  Boris Johnson – at last – accepted responsibility when Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC interviewed him on 24 July 2020.  He said that in the “first few weeks and months” of the outbreak, his ministers and he “could have done differently” in its handling of the virus.

He was also on record as stating that there would be an inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.  The big issue is – when?  Clare Foges, a journalist, argues in The Times that this inquiry should have been done and dusted in the summer of 2020 so that lessons could be learnt swiftly, given that the scientists warned that there could be another serious spike when Covid-19 is likely to run berserk in the winter.   She was robustly supported by Liam Smeeth, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who said that we must have an inquiry into the pandemic to find the answer to three questions, i.e. “What happened?  Who was responsible? What can we learn?”

There are other urgent and important questions that need to be answered if the nation is to be protected pending the invention of a vaccine and/or a cure. They include the following.

(1)        Why was the NHS not ready for the first wave of cases that led to the lockdown?

(2)        What lessons can be learnt from this delay that will help it prepare better for a second wave when (not if) it comes?

(3)        Can we ensure that patients suffering from serious conditions such as cancer and have other diseases will not be neglected should a second wave hit the country – as they happened in the first wave?

(4)        How can we improve the test-and-trace system that did not (for months) work well to control more outbreaks of Coronavirus?

(5)        What can the government do to improve its announcements which have sown confusion-worse-confounded?  The reader will remember that there was mayhem when we went into lockdown and more chaos as we came out of it in mid-to-late July. Consequently, many more people died than was necessary.

Some announcements arrived too late.   The reader will recall that the announcing lockdowns in Manchester and Bradford, two areas where there are substantial numbers of Asian Muslims, came on the eve of Eid al-Adha as extended families were on the cusp of celebrations.

In the meantime, the Texas Medical Association made up of 53,000 physicians and medical students, produced a pecking order of risk to humans of catching the virus. (See Appendix.)

The prime minister has said there will not be another blanket national lockdown. But are local public health officials prepared to deal with coronavirus spikes and are they being provided with the data in what has been a centralised approach? More successful countries, notably Germany, have dealt with the virus on a decentralised basis. Can local lockdowns be successfully implemented without prompting public outrage?

Meanwhile, governors and headteachers – especially the latter – have been tearing their heads and hair (where they have some) out trying to keep up with the deluge of guidance emanating from the Department for Education. According to Schools Week, by 5 June 2020, “school leaders have had to read almost 100 updates of government guidance during the coronavirus crisis – a quarter of them published during antisocial hours”.

Unsurprisingly, headteachers have had difficulty keeping up with the piecemeal changes.   Given the requirement for all of us to maintain social/physical distancing, governors have been unable to be as helpful to their schools/academies as they were pre-Covid-19.   Many headteachers, consequently, feel isolated and beleaguered.     Something comes in on a Friday, 70 pages long.  It’s updated on a Monday with another paper of 70 pages, often without clear indication of what’s changed. There must be a better for the Department for Education to deal with documentation.

Since February 2020, there have been over 40 new publications of pandemic guidance for schools and academies and over 100 updates.   In July 2020, Schools Week discovered that 25 of these updates were published during anti-social hours, i.e. after 5.00 p.m. or over weekends.

So much of the general advice to members of the public has been muddled.  People must move in “safe bubbles”.  What exactly are these? Two families?  Six people?  And where can the safe bubbles be?  Is it okay to have them on the beaches?  Can children sleep over with their friends?

We were advised to “follow the science”. But what science?  We have the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.  Within this august body, we have experts contradicting themselves.  And then there is the Independent Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, also made up of experts, who are at odds with the national SAGE.  They too are made up of experts who sometimes proffer disparate advice to the national body.

We were told to isolate – especially if suspected of having Covid-19.  But Dominic Cummings, chief adviser to the PM (who had picked up this deadly virus), made a round trip to Barnard Castle (up North) and failed to express any remorse leave alone resign.

The pandemic that the world is experiencing is unique.  The government has had to deal with an evolving situation.   Also, there is a tension between keeping people alive and well and saving the economy that has taken a hammering.  However, Johnson and his ministers have been less than honest about what happened and is happening together with the measures they are taking. They have also been muddled about the guidance that they published.

The DfE informed Schools Week that its advice reflected the “most up-to-date information to make sure that teachers, parents and young people are as well-informed as possible in what is a rapidly changing situation”.

The DfE appears to be improving its advice, which now includes more detailed information on the changes to some pieces of guidance.  And, to be fair, some recently updated guidance contains alterations to the previous publications in sections at the top with bullet-proof lists of the changes.

In the meantime, Public Health England (PHE) believes that tougher rules will be needed for older children – i.e. those older than 10 years of age – after initial results suggested that they can transmit the virus like adults. Researchers have been unhappy with the way in which ministers have downplayed their findings. Preliminary results suggest that while primary pupils pose little danger, the same is not the case with older children, when their bodies start to act like small adults in attracting and passing on the virus.

Meanwhile, governors have been precluded from visiting their schools and academies to take a more hands-on approach to governance.  This has been exacerbated by meetings having to be on Microsoft Teams or Zoom.  The meetings via these platforms have ushered in unique nuances.   Body language at governors’ meetings accounted for much prior to Covid-19.  When a chair engaged in pregnant pauses, s/he could be stirred into action by discrete yawns or shifting bottoms.   Since the onset of the pandemic, these have not been possible.   Time and again, governors have signalled that they wish to make contributions by clicking on the appropriate icons, but chairs who are not particularly technic savvy, have failed to notice, allowing the bolshie members to take up more voice space than they should.

Also, governors’ meetings have previously been children-free zones.  Not anymore – especially for parent governors, who have had to go into discrete rooms and lock their doors.  However, this has not deterred some youngsters from banging on the doors to gain their parents’ attention.   But children are why schools and academies exist and children are primus inter parus in the work they do.  They should not be viewed as detractors when they butt in, but rather welcomed.

Writing in The Sunday Times on 5 July 2020, India Knight mentioned that in 2017, Professor Robert Kelly was talking about South Korean politics on BBC News when “when his four-year-old daughter, Marion, swaggered into the room”.  He failed to hold her back. And then her infant brother, James, joined the duo propelling himself in a wheelie rolling chair. The fractured and panicked mother, Jung-a Kim, flew in to grab them back. Kelly said later: “We both assumed that was the end of my career as a talking head.” When he opened Twitter, however, he found that the incident had gone viral.  Millions of people were delighted.  His career was given a lift.

On 14 June 2020, health policy expert Clare Wenham was discussing lockdown with the BBC news presenter, Christian Fraser, when her daughter Scarlett came into view.  She (her daughter) tried to find the right spot on a shelf for the unicorn picture she had painted: “Mummy, where do you want this picture?” Rather than “tut tut” the children, Fraser, said, “Scarlett, I think it looks better on the lower shelf. It’s a lovely unicorn.”  Surprised that the presenter knew her name, Scarlett went right up to the screen and asked, “Mummy, what’s his name?”

“My name is Christian,” said Christian.

“Christian,” she said, “I’m just deciding where it can go and where Mummy wants
it to go.”

These vignettes remind us about what governance is meant to be – i.e. the children.   Many governors have found meetings boring and dreary during halcyon times.  The pandemic has reminded us that we should “suffer little children” to take centre stage and not banish them to purgatory.  Their actions and reactions to how adults are behaving during the pandemic are some of the more positive features through which we are living.

Westminster Primary Academy in Blackpool understands this.  They were engaged in damage-limitation by keeping open over the summer holidays trying to help pupils catch up.   More than 20 staff members volunteered to help with classes and other activities.   Roger Farley, the Headteacher, said that most of the pupils had missed so much and were struggling because of a lack of education during the pandemic months.  Over the holidays, staff members also delivered food parcels and supermarket vouchers to pupils’ homes.

Several schools and academies up and down the country did the same.   They are quietly making a difference – for the better.

Not to be outdone, Oxford University adjusted the entry criteria for state school and academy pupils given the unusual circumstances.  It discriminated in favour of those from average or poor comprehensives who failed to meet the usual standard of three A grades at A-level.   Samina Khan, the University’s Director of Admissions said: “We want to be flexible with students who have had a rough ride this year. We will apply a degree of clemency. If we feel they will flourish at Oxford we will give them a place.”

In the words of the Senior Duke in Shakespeare’s As you like it, “Sweet are the uses of adversity which, like a toad, ugly and venomous, wears yet a precious jewel on its head.”  And hasn’t Covid-19 been (and continues to be) venomous?

 

Appendix

High Risk Activities

(1)        Going to a pub.

(2)        Attending religious gatherings of more than 500 people.

 

High to Moderate Risk

(3)        Visiting the cinema

(4)        Visiting the theatre

(5)        Going to an amusement park

(6)        Going to the gym

(7)        Eating at a buffet

(8)        Eating inside a restaurant

(9)        Travelling in a plan

(10)      Attending a wedding or funeral

(11)      Visiting a hair salon or barber

 

Low-to-Moderate Risk

(12)      Grocery shopping

(13)      Sitting in a doctor’s surgery

(14)      Eating outdoors at a restaurant

(15)      Spending an hour in the playground with your child/children

 

Low Risk

(12)      Opening letters

(13)      Buying takeaway meals

(4)        Filling in your car with petrol

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