Boris Johnson was elected as Britain’s prime minister because he’s a ruthless optimist, yet he has presided over one of the gloomiest periods in the country’s postwar history.
If he wants to cheer people up again, he needs a credible plan for reopening the U.K.’s schools.
Release from lockdown is painfully slow here, and the economic recovery is stuttering because many parents can’t work when their kids are at home. Johnson has already abandoned his ambition to get most primary pupils in England back in the classroom for the summer.
It was at the prompting of Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, that Johnson agreed four weeks ago to reopen primary schools this summer, before abruptly dropping the target. Secondary schools have remained closed throughout, other than to the children of key workers and vulnerable groups
If he fails to reopen schools by September, when the new term begins, the political damage will be incalculable. The reopening has to happen not just for the economy’s sake, but for the sake of a generation of children too.
This week the prime minister’s old employer, the ultra-Conservative Daily Telegraph, published an article by the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, demanding “a national plan to restart classes.”
McDonald’s is serving customers, shops are busy, and zoos, theme parks and even pub gardens will soon be open to children. But not schools. Let them eat and ride, but not learn in the classroom.
Johnson is a proven vote winner and he retains a comfortable, if narrowing, lead over Starmer in the polls. But his allies miss his can-do spirit and the intelligent opportunism that often turns a crisis into an opportunity.
They fear he’s not getting the big political calls right. Possibly, it’s the lagging effects of his debilitating bout of Covid-19. Whatever the stresses, a focus on the major decisions is essential.
Supporters in Parliament are trying to goad the prime minister into action. Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader and Brexit ally, and John Redwood, a Sahara-dry economist, are begging him to relax the two-meter social distancing rule that prevents many classrooms from reopening and many factories from operating.
“The number one and single most important priority to unlock the economy is getting the distance down to one meter,” says Duncan Smith.
But scientists in SAGE, the body that advises the government, say two-meter distancing must stay because the rate of virus transmission is still too high and the dangers of a second outbreak are too great.
Ironically, Johnson and his fellow Brexiters scorned expert opinion during the referendum. Now he’s open to the charge of being too deferential to it.
Delay in locking down
At the beginning of the crisis, the prime minister sheltered behind scientific opinion when he wanted to defend his delay in locking down Britain.
Now he’s finding out that there’s no consensus around — the science — it’s not a monolithic entity and its practitioners are fallible because they work with limited, flawed data.
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Most will therefore err on the side of caution. Many prominent British scientists are challenging the views of SAGE at every turn.
Given the dire prognosis for the UK economy, and the 20% drop in gross domestic product in April, Johnson’s cabinet colleagues are more minded now to listen to economic experts.
It was at the prompting of Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, that Johnson agreed four weeks ago to reopen primary schools this summer, before abruptly dropping the target. Secondary schools have remained closed throughout, other than to the children of key workers and vulnerable groups.
The danger is that delay creates more delay. The UK’s main teachers’ body, the National Education Union, has been hostile to an early return to work.
Twenty local authorities have forbidden schools to reopen, and many parents are too scared to send children back because no one at the top is speaking with clarity and confidence about the minimal risk of doing so.
If the government fails to sort out the mess by September, the odds will increase on a generation of children losing a year’s worth of education.
Social divisions are widened by the lockdown, and education is the prime indicator. Private fee-paying schools zealously provide Zoom lessons for their pupils, sometimes four or five times a day; middle class parents give their children personal computers for online classes.
Many other people don’t have that luxury. In deprived areas, teachers suspect that most of their pupils are doing far less than two hours work a day.
As many as one in five teenagers are receiving no school work at all. Johnson came to power pledging to “level up” the life chances of poor children. More of this education lockdown will give them a mountain to climb.
The World Health Organisation endorses social distancing of one meter. Denmark, the Netherlands, France and even Belgium — which has a higher per capita death rate from the virus than the UK — opened schools weeks ago.
Johnson set out three priorities at the start of the crisis: the National Health Service, the economy and education. The NHS is essential to saving lives, so it was easy to create a political consensus around the slogan “Save Our NHS.”
There has been no popular campaign to Save Our Schools. The prime minister urgently needs one.
Yes, it’s a risk to open up classrooms. But the bulk of scientific evidence points to very low fatality rates among children from Covid-19.
The mortal danger to primary school kids is lower than death by lightning strike. Stay one meter away at school and two meters away from grandparents is nuanced advice we could grasp easily.
Endless arguments will grind on over health and safety. But ultimately sending children back is the correct thing to do.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator.