Press play to listen to this article
LONDON — Boris Johnson begins his third big school “unlockdown” test Monday — and he needs to pass it with flying colors.
Most of England’s pupils will return to the classroom this week after schools were forced to close their doors to all but the children of key workers in early January as coronavirus infections spiraled out of control.
Fully reopening schools is the first stage in the U.K. prime minister’s four-step “roadmap” back to normality. It will see the gradual unlocking of society no earlier than June 21, when the government hopes to lift all restrictions on social contact.
Johnson has been here before, sending children back to school last summer, only to slam on the brakes in the run-up to Christmas as cases rose. A brief attempt to reopen institutions in January was swiftly abandoned when Johnson ordered the U.K. into its third national lockdown.
This time he is determined to strike a more measured tone, urging the public over the weekend to stick to the rules as the government takes a “cautious” approach.
But health experts and political opponents warn the prime minister is not out of the woods yet, with questions still remaining over the effectiveness of the U.K.’s test, trace and isolate system, and concerns about rising infection rates as children begin to mix with friends again.
The U.K. is “still a long way from having a functioning test, trace and isolate system,” according to Martin McKee, a professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a member of Independent Sage, a group of scientists led by the former government Chief Scientific Adviser David King. He added it was a matter of regret there had not been more financial support for those needing to isolate in last week’s budget announcement.
The head of England’s national test and trace system, Dido Harding, said in February that at least 20,000 people a day were believed not to be self-isolating when they are told to. The opposition Labour Party wants to expand support for people self-isolating, claiming some feel they simply cannot afford to follow the rules.
McKee also questioned whether the system’s tracing ability was up to scratch after it took days to find someone in the U.K. who had tested positive for a Brazilian coronavirus “variant of concern” but failed to give proper contact details.
“We need to be able to be confident in controlling outbreaks and situations like finding the person who came in from Brazil, rather than searching for them and then they eventually called up themself,” he added.
Despite these concerns, the government made it clear on Sunday it is determined home schooling will be a thing of the past for parents. “The reason we are taking this cautious approach is so that the steps that we take are steps that will never be reversed,” Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told Times Radio.
Even if the reproduction rate of the virus climbs above one, the point at which the number of COVID cases keeps increasing, there should be no pause in the return to school, Public Health England’s Susan Hopkins told the BBC.
She said she expected the relationship between rising case numbers and hospitalizations to diverge as more and more of the population are vaccinated, especially those who would be likely to need hospitalization. Some cases in the community without needing further restrictions would be accepted, she said.
With the number of daily deaths from the disease reaching a peak of 1,820 at one point in January and the U.K. recording one of the highest death rates in the world, the prime minister can ill afford another spike in infections and deaths.
Yet many MPs in his own party have made it clear they are unlikely to tolerate any return to restrictions, voicing grave concerns about the economic and social impact of lockdowns.
Conservative MP Pauline Latham, a member of the Covid Recovery Group of backbench lawmakers, warned any further reversal of lockdown measures would be “devastating” for children.
“It is very important that this doesn’t reverse, and I don’t see why it should,” she said — and urged the government to move more quickly still. “It seems to me we really need to see how this first five weeks goes. And if it is as successful, as I believe it should be, then we should look again at how we should maybe move slightly faster.”