Educational disruption is a significant threat to our children’s future
Miriam Cates MP | The Telegraph
Mass testing is fuelling demands for new restrictions, without any concern for the disruption it is causing
It hasn’t been a great year for making predictions. But it seems a fairly safe bet to forecast a large rise in reported COVID cases this week. There’s a simple reason for this. Schools are gearing up to test millions of children for COVID before they return to the classroom, and a fair number are likely to test positive for the virus.
According to the ONS survey data, around 2.5 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds in England currently have COVID Infection rates in the over-16s are even higher. So it seems fairly clear that the number of recorded case numbers is going to rise sharply once these children are individually tested. But as we brace ourselves for these first days of term, it is crucial that we understand three important truths about this mass testing of schoolchildren.
First, the cases we find will not have been “caused” by school returns. They are likely to be existing infections transmitted in the usual ways. Secondly, there is nothing surprising about these figures. If you test a lot, you will probably find a lot of cases. Thirdly, there is nothing alarming about 2.5 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds being infected with COVID. It is not a dangerous disease for most children, the vast majority of adults have been vaccinated, and the low numbers of COVID deaths now being recorded are proof that this immunity is working.
Still, as a mother I am increasingly anxious about the start of the new term. I have a growing fear that, for the third year running, my children’s education is about to be disrupted in a way that causes them short-term anguish and long-term harm.
Before the summer I was quietly confident that schools would be back to normal after the holidays. It goes without saying, I told myself, that since COVID is now likely to be endemic, and adults face almost no restrictions on their lives, there could be no justification for any further restrictions in schools. Now, I have a sinking feeling that my optimism was rather naive.
Scottish children went back to school on August 18. Over the next few days, recorded cases in Scotland rose quite significantly. This was to be expected, and yet the reaction of much of the media and some politicians bodes ill for the start of the term in England and Wales, with many already talking about the restrictions that will be “required” in schools. Are these commentators merely ignorant about the significance of the case numbers? Either way, they are driving calls for unnecessary restrictions that will cause further damage to our children’s education and well-being. Already there are reports that some schools in the south-west are to compel students to wear masks.
Those who call for new restrictions in schools seem to think that it’s morally acceptable to use our children’s education as a “buffer zone” to try to prevent the spread of a disease that causes them no harm. The same people say they are “following the science”. On the basis of what evidence did we pursue the burdensome policy of isolating “contacts” of positive cases, which has seen millions of children miss weeks of education?
Advocates for restrictions also seem to assume that these measures are harmless. They are anything but. It does cost our children to be forced to wear masks, to have to live with the uncertainty caused by regular testing, and to be brought up in a climate of fear where they are the scapegoats. It is damaging for children to be prevented from mixing with other young people and to miss out on crucial educational opportunities like school trips. If we are going to follow the science then let’s be clear: COVID is no longer a significant threat to the well-being of the UK population, but educational disruption is a significant threat to our children’s future.
The answer to this is to stop testing healthy children for COVID. Lateral flow tests are inadequate at identifying real cases but also record false positives. It is also reasonable to establish that the benefits of mass testing outweigh the harms. But where is this cost-benefit analysis? How many COVID cases have been prevented by testing asymptomatic children? Does this justify the harms of lost education, the psychological impact of isolation, the lost income for families when parents are forced to stay at home? Surely the thousands of children who may be about to miss out on the vital first two weeks of term deserve an answer to these questions?
If the alarming lack of evidence isn’t enough, surely the financial costs should bring us to our senses. With lateral flow tests costing between £5 and £30 each, if every secondary school student takes two Covid tests at the start of term, we are about to spend in the region of £100 million on testing children in just one week. That’s enough to pay the salaries of more than 3,000 teachers for a whole year.
The welfare of children should be the first priority of any society.
But at many points during the pandemic, the best interests of young people have barely been an afterthought. The mass testing of healthy children feels like an out of control train gathering momentum; there is no longer any meaningful destination, and it’s time to jump off.
This article was originally published in The Telegraph in August 2021