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15 November 2021

How the UK sleepwalked into another Covid disaster

By failing to prevent the rapid spread of coronavirus in schools, Boris Johnson has thrown children and adults to the wolves.

By Dominic Minghella

The story of British children and Covid-19 is a strange one. It’s worth telling not just in its own right but because it feeds into the UK’s overall coronavirus response, and it is emblematic of the dysfunction in our broader politics.

During the summer of this year, you might comfortably have predicted that the UK would vaccinate schoolchildren in line with other developed countries, and in good time before the start of the new academic year. After all, the education and mental health of the next generation had been the subject of much earnest libertarian hand-wringing, and professed concern for our young was one of the more emotive arguments for the abandonment of all caution on “freedom day” (19 July). 

That being the case, all parents, united in their desire to see schools open and safe, might have hoped for the full panoply of measures – vaccines and mitigations – to be brought to bear in the interests of our children. Hope came in early August, with the news that 16- and 17-year-olds were eligible for vaccines, albeit only one dose. Within a month, half of them had already taken up the offer.

But as the summer wore on, alarm bells began to ring. Mitigations in schools would have to be done ahead of time. But they weren’t being done. Funding for air purification and monitoring equipment didn’t seem to be forthcoming. We already knew that the education recovery commissioner for England, Kevan Collins, had resigned over the lack of catch-up funding provided by the government. It didn’t bode well but if “learning to live with the virus” meant anything, surely air quality in schools would have to be addressed.

The general discourse was even more troubling. Disinformation abounded and some of it came from august sources. “Kids don’t get ill with Covid,” went some of the narratives, “or at least they rarely die with it. And even if they do get it, they don’t spread it.”

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Robert Dingwall, a participant of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) was interviewed saying long Covid was largely in the mind. More startling still was the idea that “natural” infection might be beneficial in children. Nobody was using the words “herd immunity” anymore, but the concept was still circulating in relation to youngsters.

A libertarian group well-connected with the Westminster PR machine, the Covid Recovery Group of lockdown-sceptic Tory MPs began to float the idea that, since children did not suffer with Covid, vaccinating them could only make sense as a benefit to society rather than to the children themselves, which in their view was self-evidently unconscionable.

The groundwork was being laid for a bizarre brake on the logic of vaccination, in which the treatment of the 12- to 15-year-old cohort was to become a new front in the ongoing struggle between libertarianism and social responsibility. 

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency had approved the Pfizer vaccine as safe for this age group on 4 June. But the JCVI spent the summer failing to recommend its rollout. We needed to be particularly careful, it was argued, when it came to children. There was the risk of myocarditis, and more data was needed. Finally, on 3 September, came the declaration that, for this cohort of children, the “margin of benefit” was too small to recommend a vaccine rollout.

The JCVI’s reasoning seemed questionable to some, but all was not lost. The decision of whether to offer vaccination passed to each of the four nations’ chief medical officers (CMOs). Those CMOs approved deployment in the second week of September. Their cautious words also seemed questionable: England’s CMO, Chris Whitty, said it was a “difficult decision” given the marginal health benefit perceived by the JCVI, but it could be a “useful tool in reducing school disruption”. Vaccination was being introduced, therefore, on the basis of minimising disruption, rather than as a direct health benefit. But if the justification was uncomfortable, at least the young were to be protected at last. In common with 16 and 17-year-olds, they were to receive only one dose. And far, far too late. But at least “by October half-term” this baffling delay would be behind us.

Meanwhile, it was becoming clear that air quality management had not been installed in schools and, worse, almost no other mitigations were to be adopted when term started. Would there be strengthened mask guidelines? No. Would there be more “bubbles” in place to isolate contacts of infected individuals if necessary? No. Would there be arrangements for medically vulnerable kids, or those who live with vulnerable adults (as in our household and many thousands of others) to learn from home? No. Would parents be threatened with “off-rolling” or legal sanctions, if they did not send their children to school? You bet.

For those parents and families most inclined towards caution, then, it was a partial – if maddeningly late – win on vaccines and a wholesale defeat on making schools safe.

But here the story takes a tragic, if predictable, turn for the worse. The youngsters went back to school. And they started to catch Covid in substantial numbers. Still, for families, there was comfort in the notion that they were unlikely to suffer severe illness. There was also the lingering belief that they were unlikely to spread the virus. And if they did spread it, at least most of the adults in their lives were now fully vaccinated.

There was no reason for panic. And, presumably, the UK government and the Department for Health would be watching the data and closely monitoring the dashboard; if there were to be a serious problem, alternative arrangements would surely kick in. Parents held their breath.

As September rolled on, the advertised in-school vaccinations just didn’t happen. It was because, some speculated, they had to be done with informed consent, requiring more specialised training than for older recipients. It was because, some said, an entirely new system needed to be created in order to send teams into schools. It was because, some speculated, the UK was low on Pfizer doses, but the government remains suspiciously unforthcoming on the subject of stocks.

Whatever the reason, by half-term, only around 16 per cent of vaccinations in the cohort had been achieved. Meanwhile, school-age kids had caught Covid by the truckload. Over 7 per cent of the entire Year 7 to Year 11 cohort was infected on any day in the last week of October alone. Maybe that was the unspoken plan. Certainly the JCVI’s minutes – released at the end of October after lengthy delays – make grim reading in this respect. The idea, already noted, that “natural infection” might be better than vaccination for young people was under discussion even here. Somehow, catching Covid was proffered as a better way of not getting ill with Covid than preventing its worst effects with a proven vaccine.

I did say this was a strange story.

The JCVI minutes also refer to discussion of infection among youngsters as a potential method of boosting immunity in adults; kids as living booster jabs. This makes for extraordinary reading given that the JCVI had previously been at pains to make clear that it could only consider the direct benefits (and risks) to the recipient of a vaccine, not the wider impact on society. Even forgetting that this idea once again effectively advocates the boosting of immunity (this time in respect of adults) through infection with the disease itself, this could at best be considered a controversial idea.

(This reading of the minutes has been disputed by some, who take them to mean that the potential immunity boost would be a delayed “reward” for the infected young when they themselves became adults. By this interpretation, perhaps Covid is like measles, best caught when young. But this more forgiving reading is a stretch, and the comparison with measles is not well supported. In any case, we know that measles can lead to serious complications and death, even in healthy children, and voluntary infection – remember those “measles parties”? – has been discredited.)

Whether it was deliberate or not, the consequence of the mass infection of our 12- to 15 year-olds is now beyond doubt. It turns out they do spread infection after all; viral load has been shown to be the same in children as in adults. And no matter what Jacob Rees-Mogg says, knowing somebody is no indication of safety. Indeed, it is the opposite: children live in families with parents and grandparents. We can now see that infections in parents follow infections in children. And, following parents, come infections in grandparents. It’s not complicated. Children bring coronavirus home. They pass it to their loved ones. Their loved ones fall ill and they die, currently, at the sobering rate of more than a thousand per week.

What about the children themselves? At least they’re OK? No. This turns out to have been wishful thinking. Children are getting ill too. Some, tragically, are dying. Many are winding up in hospital. Ask a friend to guess how many kids are hospitalised with Covid each month in the UK. They will gasp at the answer: over a thousand. Imagine being the parent. Imagine being the child. The fear in the pit of your stomach. The dread.

Would myocarditis from mass vaccination have hospitalised a thousand British kids a month? It would not and it won’t. Would “natural infection” with coronavirus do that? It would, and it demonstrably does.

Families and children have been profoundly betrayed. Kids have been herded into schools under threat of sanction, with next to no mitigations. They have been promised vaccination that, despite a change in delivery policy over half-term, has yet to materialise for some 80 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds (in data published near the end of half-term). They have been fed dangerous disinformation. They have been led to believe that they were safe from serious disease when thousands of hospitalisations prove they were not. (Never mind long Covid, which itself is a potential horror story beginning to unfold.)

Children and adults alike have been thrown to the wolves. Acute medicine is once again at breaking point, and the ramifications for non-Covid healthcare, both acute and elective, are by now well known. React-1 data suggested that at the beginning of November some 960,000 people in England (1.72% of the population) were infected with coronavirus – the highest infection rates we’ve recorded since measuring began in May 2020. Government figures show 8,652 Covid patients are in hospital (as of 11 November). Of the UK’s 9.5 million confirmed cases since Covid began, 2.6 million – more than a quarter – have occurred in the two months since the reopening of schools. Ironically, given the government’s stated aim to keep schools open, a quarter of a million children missed school in the last week before half-term because of uncontained Covid in schools.

It is, in short, a mess. It was easy to see that putting children and their teachers into small rooms for hours on end with no mitigations would promote infection. It was easy to see that those kids would take infections home and pass them to their parents and grandparents. It was easy to see that the numbers involved could be potentially dramatic, which in turn would mean that, vaccination notwithstanding, thousands of adults would die. It was easy to see, too, that a “marginal benefit” to millions of children would equate, with very high prevalence, to thousands of examples of individual benefit – the absence of which has resulted in those one thousand hospitalised kids per month.

How, then, did it happen? The JCVI’s minimisation of Covid-19 in children, and the government’s insouciant attitude to actually delivering the vaccine once recommended, have a lot to answer for. These failings sit in the context of a society that tolerates and even amplifies disinformation; in which a cowed and constrained media fails adequately to distinguish reasonable views from propaganda, and fails to hold the government to account; in which the language of freedom has been so fetishised and warped that it now means its opposite: so that “freedom” from Covid really means mass illness and death with Covid, “freedom” from supranational regulation really means international demotion and subordination, “freedom” to trade really means shortages and spiralling prices and the collapse of small business, “freedom” to make our own laws really means the systematic curtailment of our legal and democratic rights in the face of an overbearing and corrupt executive determined to avoid scrutiny, and “freedom” to set our own standards means, among other things, flooding our waterways and beaches with raw sewage.

That’s how.

If the story of the Johnson government’s back-to-school programme of autumn 2021 is strange, it is because we live in a period of data-denying, logic-defying, belief-beggaring inversion. Not for the first time, and not just in the arena of coronavirus, our current leaders have courted disaster and rejected mitigations. No surprise, then, that what they continue to deliver is – literally – unmitigated disaster.

And winter, as they say, is coming.

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