Our Covid measures are incoherent

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Two years ago today, the first news reports emerged in the West of the detection in Wuhan, China, of 44 cases of pneumonia of an unknown cause. The World Health Organisation, which had been alerted a few days earlier, said that “based on the preliminary information from the Chinese investigation team, no evidence of significant human-to-human transmission and no health care worker infections have been reported”. Despite this, Beijing was sufficiently concerned to begin cordoning Wuhan off from the rest of the country. Thus began not only the coronavirus pandemic but also what would become the universal means for dealing with it: a lockdown.

This strategy of controls and restrictions on human contact was regarded as key to stopping the spread of the disease. As of yesterday there were almost 300 million confirmed cases around the globe and 5.4 million deaths attributed to Covid. The lockdowns, in other words, did not stop the disease in its tracks though how much worse it might have been without them we will never know.

The fact is that a limited range of levers are now pulled whenever there is a spike in cases. We are going through another at the moment with the rapid escalation of cases linked to the omicron variant. Parts of the UK have already adopted stricter measures in recent weeks without stopping the march of the virus. In England, Boris Johnson and his ministers have set their face against further controls and yet there is a bleak familiarity about the debate now taking place.

This time last year the aim was to keep schools open and yet they were closed within a few days of returning after Christmas. Ministers are adamant this will not happen again yet the signs are ominous. The prospect of widespread staff shortages is causing alarm in schools.

Older children returning to school this week will once again be made to wear masks in the classroom, an imposition that seems to lack coherence. If the key metric being used to determine the level of control is hospitalisation rates, why target children who make up an infinitesimally small proportion of those getting seriously ill? If the reason is to stop teachers getting Covid, is it a proportionate response to a disease that for the great majority who have been vaccinated will be not much worse than a cold? If the flu were rampaging through a school we would not react by making children sit all day in masks so why is it happening now? Furthermore, how does it make sense that children must do so while office workers do not?

From the outset, the younger generation has had to bear a heavy burden for curbing Covid despite being almost entirely immune to its worst effects. Have they not suffered enough to be spared the misery of mask-wearing, even if ministers say it is a temporary measure until January 26? These cut-off dates have the habit of being extended and teaching unions are already demanding “urgent steps’”, though what these might be, short of closing the schools again, is hard to fathom.

As Robert Halfon, the chairman of the Commons education committee, observed, MPs had already been told by ministers that “there was no evidence of the efficacy of mask-wearing” among children. So will the Government now set out what evidence it has to show this will make any difference?

Moreover, will it publish the cost-benefit analysis carried out to establish whether these measures are harming the well-being and mental health of children? If compulsory mask-wearing is required to keep schools open, that is a failure of policy and reflects poorly on the education establishment and on the Government.

Time and again politicians and scientists say we will have to “live with the virus” and yet the country is not being given that option despite the success of the vaccination programme.

People who contract Covid, however mildly, must isolate for seven days until they have tested negative, assuming they can get hold of a kit to check. Is there not a case for reducing this to five days as in the US and Germany? If the big problem now is absenteeism then every effort must be put into ensuring people can work and children can attend school normally.

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