Johnson’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said England had “probably reached the limits” of its opening, given the number of coronavirus cases in the country.
However, that is not the way the government sees it. According to numerous sources in the UK government who have not been authorized to talk about policy that has yet to be announced, here is where Downing Street is currently located:
Third, the two things are not unrelated. “Schools still come back, mainly because parents have to go back to work. Everything has a ripple effect, ”said a senior official.
Fourth, this disease is here and, despite optimistic signs, it is still not clear when a vaccine will arrive. Government sources say that despite the scale of the tragedy, it remains the most dangerous for the elderly and vulnerable. So, while most people can return to some type of normalcy, the focus can be on local lockdowns and protecting vulnerable people.
In short, the government could try to do everything at the same time. There will likely be an advertising campaign that puts “more emphasis on public accountability in both messaging and enforceability”, in order to have a “third way” in which “human behavior is the front line. defense ”, according to the government adviser.
Public health experts fear the country still won’t be able to guarantee to do all of this safely and that at the grand reopening Johnson may still be left with a choice.
There is a widespread belief that the UK test and trace program still falls short. Christina Pagel, professor of operations research at University College London, says that “a strong contact tracing system that can break chains of transmission and reduce infections” is essential for safe schools.
“Contact tracing is expected to reach 80% of new symptomatic cases and 80% of their contacts,” she told CNN, adding that “we are probably reaching around 50 to 70% of symptomatic cases” currently. Government sources claim that the tests are higher than that, but it is very difficult to get full numbers as the tests are now carried out locally as well as by the central government.
If the tests aren’t where they need to be, things could quickly get out of hand. “If we go back to the same level of contact we had in March, we will go back to the same level of epidemic growth,” says Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
He explains that reopening schools is dangerous not only because of the transmissions, but because of the size of the networks they create. “A school of 500 children could connect 300 to 400 homes. And homes with more than one child who attend different schools, linking all homes in both schools. So you can see how when all the schools are open the network can get huge very quickly. “
But opening them is a priority. Johnson himself said there was a “moral duty” to reopen schools this fall. Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute, says that “the most disadvantaged students (are) likely to have been hit hardest by prolonged school closures,” creating a “gap in student achievement. the poorest and the rest ”. The dilemma comes days after the government faced criticism from students, parents and teachers over the downgrading of estimated exam scores.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore the fact that school and the economy have a significant impact on each other. Obviously, parents cannot go back to work if they have to stay home to care for the children. But there is also the question of British confidence in their government.
“If people see that it is possible to go to work, open schools and go out to dinner while targeted measures quickly remove local peaks, their economic behavior will be more normal,” says Jonathan Portes, professor of economics at King’s College London. “If restaurants and pubs are suddenly forced to close and teachers say they don’t feel safe, that obviously undermines the government’s strategy which ends up affecting confidence that life will return to normal.
Whatever happens, it’s going to be tricky. Either everything remains open, the government is keeping its fingers crossed that people obey the rules, or Johnson must choose between raising children or reviving economic activity.
Critics of the government say the prime minister himself is partly to blame for his predicament, pointing to mistakes made at the start of the pandemic.
“The most obvious mistake was the abandonment of community testing in March, which meant we missed months to be able to effectively identify cases and trace contacts,” says Gabriel Scally, president of epidemiology at the Royal Society of Medicine, adding that this means months later the country’s testing and traceability system is inadequate.
It highlights the delays in locking down and stopping people entering the country, giving the impression that the government is “underestimating the severity of the virus.” He says the centralized control of the government “has made the fight against epidemics very difficult. A pandemic is basically a large number of local epidemics and it is easier to suppress them locally ”.
All of these criticisms are well known. Members of Johnson’s own party privately lament the government’s swift response. Even Johnson’s education secretary said there were “things we would take a different approach to.”
However, several months later, critics on both sides of his party now recognize that the country must start living a life as close to normal as possible. And that includes sending kids back to school and keeping pubs open – even as the country heads into a winter that could see a second spike in infections.