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Editorial The Tory and Labour ‘back to school’ mantra is dangerous and wrong

WITH Covid-19 hospitalisations soaring over Christmas to surpass the highest figures from April, ministers continue to mislead the public on the risks of schools opening normally.

Teachers’ union NASUWT general secretary Dr Patrick Roach calls for a majority of pupils to switch to online learning in January.

With the National Education Union already campaigning for a delay to reopening schools to allow mass testing and vaccination of education workers, this means the government is on a collision course with both Britain’s biggest teaching unions.

Yet Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove still has the gall to claim that “our plan and the timetable is there, and we are working with teachers to deliver it.”

Gove knows the virus is out of control, and the Prime Minister has made too many U-turns for Tory ministers to be confident that another will not be forced on him soon.

Discussions leaked to the press indicate that a change of course on schools is highly likely.

So he outlines room for manoeuvre, emphasising that the government will “keep things under review” and “remain vigilant” in the light of the new strain of Covid-19.

Labour likewise is torn between its determination not to agree with education unions and its desire to claim the credit if the Tories do a U-turn. 

So we are treated to waffle from shadow education secretary Kate Green that leaves us none the wiser as to what the party’s policy is. 

After informing us that “keeping pupils learning should be a national priority” and that the government “is putting young people’s education at risk,” what  does Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition recommend? 

That the Prime Minister “get a grip on the situation and show some leadership.” We can’t expect any from the Labour front bench, evidently.

Boris Johnson’s nickname for Sir Keir Starmer — Captain Hindsight — is disingenuous, since it insinuates that the government is being blamed after the event for problems that could not have been foreseen, when in fact the catastrophic second wave now engulfing Britain was widely predicted.

It could have been avoided or seriously reduced in scale had ministers heeded advice from trade unions and health experts on test and trace or socially distanced learning in schools.

But the jibe has bite precisely because Starmer’s Labour sees opposition as merely critiquing the government’s performance, rather than promoting an alternative vision and fighting for it.

If the government is strong in parliamentary terms — it has a large majority — it is far from strong in the country. Ministers are not trusted and their policies do not have public confidence. They have been forced to U-turn repeatedly, on exam results, evictions, lockdowns and the rules around Christmas socialising. There is anger among health and education workers, in many communities and increasing opposition at local government level.

A powerful parliamentary element to that opposition would significantly strengthen it and could force real policy changes from ministers. Labour’s ineptitude here means it shares the Tories’ responsibility for the unfolding nightmare.

There is now abundant statistical evidence that schools are engines of virus transmission, from the rapid rise in infection rates among primary and secondary pupils over the autumn term to its decline over the half-term week before picking up again.

Because children do not live on their own, this makes schools hubs for the spread of the virus through whole communities.

A lockdown that did not include schools was not a lockdown, and if ministers believe they can dodge that reality by labelling regional lockdowns “tier 3” and “tier 4” areas they must be disabused of the delusion.

Scientists warn that we are many months away from achieving herd immunity through mass vaccination. Britain has already lost more lives to this virus than any other European country. Ministers must listen to teachers and delay the return to in-school learning until it is safe.

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