NEU’s ten demands

Just as extended lockdown can test and strain people and families, there is little doubt that the coronavirus quarantine will have serious detrimental impacts on the economy and on jobs.

It is clear that a “heave” is underway at UK Cabinet level to relax, release or transition away from lockdown. Sooner or later, restrictions will relax, and schools will re-open – but when? When schools, colleges and educational settings reopen will depend on a political or philosophical battle of ideas – broadly the strategies of “Mitigation” versus “Suppression”.

Following “the science” is all well and good where consensus reigns, but as we know (from, for example, the behaviour of “Big Tobacco” or more recently the scandal surrounding “Mad-Cow Disease”) competing versions of science can be bought, “nudged” or influenced. That is why controversy has arisen over the attendance of Dominic Cummings and Ben Warner (a data scientist understood to have worked on the Vote Leave campaign) on SAGE (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies).

Exit from Lockdown is a political battlefield whether we like it or not.

Let’s look at the main “known-knowns”:

  • There is no vaccine for Covid-19, and none is expected for 12-18 months;
  • Lockdown, or quarantine, combined with good hygiene and social distancing can help lower rates of infection and help to “flatten the curve”. A good explanation of this can be found here. 
  • Flattening the curve helps, particularly in easing overload on the Health Service, but doesn’t solve the issue. What it does is to buy time.
  • In the absence of a vaccine, the implementation of a comprehensive testing and contact tracing programme (such as has been successfully implemented in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, China and in Germany) is of paramount importance.
  • In the UK, there has been some testing, mostly limited to key-workers, but no widespread community testing (i.e. beyond NHS staff, care staff and key-workers) or contact-tracing which is required to “get ahead” or “on top of” the virus. Community testing in Northern Ireland is negligible at present.
  • The UK and Northern Ireland’s preparedness to tackle the virus has been inadequate, in terms of Personal Protective Equipment, testing and contact-tracing capability, over-centralisation of response and of the readiness/capacity of health and care systems after ten years of relentless austerity policy.
  • Vital time was wasted by the UK by adoption of a “herd immunity” approach endorsed by the Chief Medical and Chief Scientific Officers and described by some as Malthusian or as Social-Darwinian in nature.

Northern Ireland’s Covid “stats”, relative to the other UK regions, are positive. “Thank God we’re surrounded by water”, as Dominic Behan once sang. (According to the internet, that quote is the refrain in a Song: "Thank God We're Surrounded By Water", by Dominic Behan, brother of the playwright Brendan Behan.)

One residue of our recent conflict is a strong sense of communitarianism which has helped enforce lockdown and social distancing. Nonetheless, the death rate for Covid-19 in the Republic of Ireland is, proportionately, two-thirds that of the Northern Ireland.

Why? The Irish Government followed World Health Organisation advice to “test, test, test” whilst the UK (including Northern Ireland) did not. That is why the degree to which Northern Ireland follows UK advice and practice is a contested issue. The UK abandoned testing and contact tracing around 12 March. Professor Gabriel Scally, (President of Epidemiology and Public Health section, Royal Society of Medicine), has called for Northern Ireland to maximise the natural island advantages by adopting the World Health Organisation (WHO) advice, rather than the UK policy and practice.

This tension is playing out across the UK’s administrations. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has flagged up a willingness, if necessary, to diverge from London based strategies where they do not match “the science”. In Belfast, it is easy to see how exit from lockdown strategies could split along communal political lines. Arguably, a premature lifting of the lockdown could threaten the Northern Ireland political institutions.

So, we’ve bought time through lock-down, which is useful for mitigation purposes, but have not used that time particularly well in pressing on towards strong suppression. This does not augur well for an imminent relaxation of lock-down.

The arguments are not as simple as “The Economy and Jobs” vs “Health and Lives”. Everything would not be rosy, economically, if quarantine were lifted. An important contribution from The University of California, Berkeley, analysed two strategies: a short-term control strategy to keep rates of infection within limits; and a long-term control strategy aimed at limiting infections and bringing the flow to very low levels. Essentially a strategy of mitigation (broadly the UK approach) versus a strategy of strong suppression (broadly the WHO recommendation). A subsequent Imperial College London (ICL) analysis of costs considered the cost in four areas: Lives Lost; Lost Workdays; Health/Medical Costs; and the Costs of Social Distancing. On all four measures, the least costly option is strong “suppression”.

This latest ICL research analysis should be front and centre of the current UK debate on the relaxation of the lockdown. That it’s not is worrying!

What’s NEU’s position? The ten demands

NEU’s position, in respect of any proposed general return for schools, colleges and educational settings is as follows. A return should only be possible when six conditions are met:

  1. only when a general return does not risk over-whelming the NHS and key services;
  2. only with a sustained fall in death rate;
  3. only with a sustained fall in infection rate;
  4. only where there is adequate PPE for schools and college staff;
  5. only where there is an adequate testing and contact-tracing regime for school and college staff; and
  6. only where there is no risk of a second “wave” or peak – which is good for no-one but very damaging in education where pupils will suffer from the flux of being sent home again and having multiple transitions back to in-school or college learning, and potentially longer out of the classroom than in a delayed reopening.

Assuming these conditions are in place, a return at individual school, college or educational setting level should take place:

  1. only when a thorough risk assessment has been conducted, and provided to all staff;
  2. only with a deep clean;
  3. only with a clear practical social distancing policy/procedure in place. In this regard, as social distancing in full schools or colleges is at best impractical, if not impossible, the expectation is that schools or colleges will have far fewer pupils/students in them than the full roll at any given time; and
  4. only by agreement with the Health and Safety Executive, Northern Ireland (HSENI).