Here we go again. Four months after that bold (correct) decision to go ahead with Freedom Day, we’re scuttling for cover. We face our first test and we’ve flunked it. The irreversible path to normality is not so irreversible after all.
And, again, it’s our children who will suffer. No, not because of Covid, which is arguably less dangerous to them than cycling to school. But because of our terrified response to a variant whose symptoms the doctor who discovered it describes as – wait for it – “mild”.
Yet that doesn’t stop the Government reintroducing isolation rules that will inevitably have a hugely damaging impact on our children’s education. Once again, perfectly healthy kids who happen to have been in contact with someone with this omicron variant will be forced to stay away from school and isolate for days on end – regardless of whether they test positive. They might not even have a sniffle, but they’ll be stuck at home playing video games, watching TV or just staring into space. Isn’t that wonderful.
Who benefits? Do we really need to state the facts yet again? In the first year of the pandemic, around 100,000 people in the UK died after testing positive for Covid. Of these, just 0.025 per cent were children. That’s tragic for the families of those 25, of whom six were otherwise healthy. Awful and unthinkable. But during that same period, around 50 children were killed on Britain’s roads, and around 16,000 injured. Every year, hundreds of teenagers commit suicide. Where are the panicky measures for them?
So, let’s not pretend that Covid restrictions – whether testing, bubbles, one-way systems, masks or stay-off-school orders – are for the benefit of children. The reverse is true. Disruption to education has been so bad that it would cost £15 billion to provide a catch-up service. Pupils lost half a year of progress. Many suffered mental health issues and domestic abuse. Skills relating to communication, fine motor and problem-solving are lower than they’ve been for many years. An Ofsted report bluntly states “Repeated isolation has chipped away at the progress pupils have made”.
We know all of this, and more. Yet we are willingly, wilfully, about to put children through it all over again.
If any other sector of society were discriminated against in such a brutal manner, we’d be up in arms. But not for children. Is that because they have no clear voice themselves? Or is it because many of the terrible effects of these restrictions, including long-term wage loss and even lower life expectancy, won’t become truly evident for years to come, long after the present crop of ministers and scientists have moved on? Or perhaps it’s because the Government is terrified of the teaching unions, who are gleefully flexing their muscles, demanding a return to those soul-destroying “bubbles” and insisting that Christmas activities be cancelled. That’s the festive spirit.
It could be any of these things. But one thing we do know is that children’s education is way too important to be left to ministerial whim and hasty, panicky measures announced by an exhausted prime minister and a strangely nervous-looking Chris Whitty late on a Saturday afternoon.
This Government is fond of U-turns. Maybe that’s a strength. More likely it’s a weakness. Either way, we need another one pronto. We need Boris or Sajid to get in front of the cameras and announce that school children will be exempt from these new isolation restrictions.
Nobody knows what sort of a threat the omicron variant poses. It could well be a false alarm, albeit with a sinister-sounding name. But while we wait to find out, let’s not sacrifice our children, yet again.