The graph below, based on Department of Health data for Northern Ireland from February 2020 to 8 January 2021, shows something that no one within the education system wants to acknowledge. While there was no general lockdown in July, in August the virus was flat, before shooting up in the latter part of September. Note that this was not in winter, but in a period of very mild autumn weather. It coincided with the reopening of schools almost exactly. The rapid rise of infection in September surely suggests that schools matter and that young people are a main transmission source of the virus. Pupils show few, if any, symptoms and remain undiagnosed unless they transmit Covid to adults.

Also of note is that the flattening and small decline at the top occurs just after the half-term closure at the latter part of October. Does this suggest that lockdowns are in vain if schools are not included?

Northern Ireland
Coronavirus in Northern Ireland

Department of Health data for Northern Ireland from February 2020 to 8 January 2021

Now, in mid-January, the health service is overrun, working beyond capacity. Infections and deaths have risen to the highest level yet.  Lockdowns, however, only buy time. And buying time is only of use if the test and trace system is highly effective. The system is far from the “world beating” one our prime minister promised.

And here’s the worrying part. Infections will only reduce if those affected isolate. What if they can’t afford to isolate? Or if they lose pay?  Or lose their job? Without solid financial support, many will avoid isolation and go to work.

Socio-economic factors matter. Poor people tend to live in larger numbers within smaller cramped accommodation. Doubly so for migrant workers. New York and New Zealand tackle this by requisitioning empty homes or hotel rooms.

Poor working conditions compound the problem. Here is what SAGE publications (referring to England) report:

“Testing and tracing will only significantly reduce transmission if positive cases isolate effectively. Yet currently fewer than 20% of those who should isolate are fully adherent. Recent survey data shows that intention to adhere to test, trace, and isolate behaviours is higher than self-reported adherence: whilst 76% of people intend to share contacts, only 50% of people correctly recognise COVID-19 symptoms and just 12% get a test, 18% isolate, and 11% of contacts isolate properly. Self-reported ability to self-isolate is three times lower in those who earn less than £20,000 per year or have less than £100 saved. The UK has one of the lowest proportions of pay covered by statutory sick pay in Europe (29% compared to 100% in Germany and 93% in Belgium), and millions do not qualify. An OECD review showed paid sick leave is important well beyond its core function to protect sick workers during a health pandemic and subsequent economic crisis”.

Trace and test reduces transmission only when those affected can isolate effectively. Decent sick pay can mitigate the spread of Covid-19. While sick pay in education is adequate, the same cannot be said of the workforce as a whole. And a key weapon is lost.

Enabling the most vulnerable to isolate requires adequate financial support. Without that support, workers (including key workers) will duck the test system, delete the Covid-19 App, and stay under the radar. They can afford no other option. Employment protection is a frontline tool to combat the virus.

The evaluation of the mass-scale Liverpool pilot found that good isolation support was fundamental. It also concluded that the impact of mass testing was reduced by low uptake in deprived communities. Why? A fear of not being able to afford self-isolation. 

This lockdown will have limited effect, regardless of how strictly it is enforced. The public health defences are just too threadbare, with key levers (such as support for those self-isolating) ignored, often for ideological reasons.

In schools we must use lockdown to plan for a safe return.  For the NEU, this means:

  • much smaller class sizes
  • a teacher-pupil ratio of one to ten
  • bubbles of six to eight maximum
  • strict 2m social distancing
  • vaccinations for school staff
  • better PPE, and reinvigorated cleaning regimes
  • more pupils walking or cycling to school – to reduce transmission on transport.