Did we really sacrifice our children on the altar of Covid extremism? | #coronavirus | #kids. | #children | #schools

Such one-rule-for-us behaviour is central to all organised discrimination. Irrespective of your view on the wearing of masks (whose efficacy in preventing the spread of Covid the authors contest) it cannot be right that while “secondary school children in England spent months forced to wear masks in their classrooms – up to seven hours a day – neither the vast majority of adults nor policymakers themselves were prepared to do that.” Indeed, on the day in November last year that masks were reintroduced in English schools, Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi was photographed unmasked at a Teachers Award ceremony. 

Then, the book adds, there was the language used about children which, because of the huge focus on whether they would spread the disease from school to home (as is common with flu), “portrayed them as nothing more than walking carriers of disease” – a classic trope of stigmatisation and discrimination. It suggests this intense, reductive scrutiny on children as “vectors” (many of which elsewhere in nature, it notes, “are bloodsucking insects”) was inherently demeaning. “Throughout the pandemic, children have been treated as a mere means, with their health, welfare and bodily integrity itself ‘othered’ for the protection of adults.”

Combined, the authors say, the effect was a “de facto deprioritisation of children’s health, welfare and education” which, like countless historic examples of prejudice, was not only excused at the time, it was not even considered “in any way regrettable, unethical or to be avoided in the future”.

The final, and perhaps weightiest part of the charge of “childism” comes with the accusation that, far from being inevitable, it was calculated. “There was always a choice,” the authors suggest. As a result, those doing the choosing – whatever the pressure from “activist scientists, the opposition and unions” – must take the blame. “Ultimately, the Conservative government orchestrated a climate of terror [and] exploited events to children’s detriment…” Elsewhere, say Cole and Kingsley, in Sweden, Hungary, and some Republican-run US states, children weren’t made to pay such a high price. Why here?

This is a jeremiad of grim intensity, rooted in barely concealed outrage. And any parent recalling the terrible homeschooling days of lockdown will be tempted to sympathise. But while it is cathartic to identify villains to lambast, and comforting to suggest they consciously orchestrated a grand plan of discrimination, the reality is probably a bit more muddled. 

On the chief indictment that schools should not have been closed, for example, the authors claim: “neither could we find any verified evidence that the measures proposed would slow the spread of Covid-19, nor any evidence that schools were significant drivers of community transmission.” Yet others are far more certain: “There is very little doubt that during the first wave school closures had a big impact on transmission of the epidemic in this country,” noted Paul Hunter, Professor in Medicine at UEA, last September. A tracked Covid outbreak in the Netherlands, where children were not sent home from class, showed that schools could indeed seed infection in the wider community. And careful analysis from Sweden revealed that minimal precautions there nearly doubled teachers’ risk of being diagnosed with Covid. Their partners were almost a third more likely to catch it, while parents of children in school were 17 per cent more likely than those with children learning remotely. 

The argument then, is surely not whether closing schools had an impact on transmission, which it clearly did, but whether that impact was worth the vast price to pay – for learning, safeguarding, physical and mental health and the rest of that roll call of misery. For example, a recent paper looking at education in Sweden during the pandemic has suggested that there was “no Covid19-related learning loss in reading in Swedish primary school students”; that “the proportion of [Sweden’s] students with weak reading skills did not increase during the pandemic” and finally that Swedish “students from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds were not especially affected”. None of which were true in Britain. 

Of Sweden’s 39,000 primary school teachers, 79 were hospitalised with Covid between March and June 2020, and one died. Studies suggest 33 of those 79 severe cases might have been avoided by remote learning. Were those 33 cases, that one death, a price worth paying for the continued schooling of children? Many of us would say, “yes”. But perhaps we are not the teachers being asked to make that sacrifice. Certainly The Children’s Enquiry reserves much of its ire for unions whose “stance may have been as much about politicking and ‘winning’ as the safety of their members”. And such ire is understandable when the news of school closures in January 2021 was greeted by the National Education Union (NEU) with emailed “congratulations” to its members. Naturally, Labour did not rush to question the union-pleasing closures. “You would expect some of the voices on the left that would typically be speaking up for disadvantaged, underprivileged kids to come out and say, hold on a minute,” Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at the LSE, tells the authors.

Yet, in the end, even they seem to lose faith in their charge of Covid-inspired “childism”. Perhaps that’s understandable. Given that the pandemic’s harms were so widespread, it is hard to sustain accusations of targeted discrimination. The care-home victims, the silent victims of other conditions denied care, ethnic minorities, the poor – the list is long of those affected as vicious choices and terrible bargains were made on the fly. But as the Covid public enquiry may well make clear, much of what went wrong was cock-up more than calculation.

As it concludes then, the book begins to morph into another hot debate, the so-called clash of generations. Covid, it turns out, merely exacerbated a “pre-existing status quo of a [British] ‘gerontocracy’, structurally biased in favour of older generations”. This, by contrast, is undeniably true. Health spending is prioritised over education. The over-65s have gone from being the poorest in society to the richest. Meanwhile 30 per cent of under-17s live in poverty. 

But what is also undeniably true is that this has been a demographic transition that has taken place over the last 30 years, not the last 30 months. Fixing it will not be easy. Making children a political priority once again would be a fantastic start – if only to show that there’s no such thing as “childism”.

The Children’s Inquiry by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley. To order from Telegraph Books for £9.99, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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