Dear Gavin Williamson, are you sure schools will be safe in September?

Michael Rosen
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

As I’m going through the ups and downs of recovering from the effects of this terrible virus, I’m worried about your plans for a return to school and university in September in England. I have offspring at both secondary school and university, so this feels very pressing.

One reason for my concern is that I’ve lost confidence in the government’s responses to Covid-19. I think you know as well as everyone else in government that the handling of this pandemic in England has been muddled and inconsistent. Bit by bit, it is being established by journalists and House of Commons select committees that, for example, the government imposed lockdown a week late, costing thousands of lives and, as with me, thousands contracting an illness that has long-term and irreversible effects.

I see that your government repeatedly justifies its actions in terms of following what the experts advised, one strand of which was the entirely invented and spurious concept of “behaviour fatigue” – that is, people in lockdown would get fed up and break lockdown. This justification overlooks the fact that much more brutal ideas were possibly swirling round No 10 at the time. Yes, I know that No 10 has denied that “herd immunity” was ever proposed or that anyone ever said “if some pensioners die, too bad” but this denial rests on us believing that the Sunday Times made these words up. Given the effect of moving old people from hospitals into care homes, it’s hard not to think this kind of thinking was indeed on the agenda at the time.

Related: Unions call for teachers in England to be able to wear face masks

It also overlooks the fact that the World Health Organization was saying on 24 February that in order to reduce Covid-19 illness and death, near-term readiness planning must embrace the large-scale implementation of detection and isolation, contact tracing and monitoring/quarantining and community engagement in all settings, including schools. Further, on 27 February WHO published guidance on the type of personal protective equipment to use.

Your government chose to ignore this advice. I was regularly in schools at this time, and no such measures were in place.

And so we come to the present. We have received no communication from you as to how children, students, teachers, and school workers should behave or dress in relation to this pandemic. I see that the government has published a document “Guidance for full opening: schools” with subsections for parents and carers. It’s up on your site. Do you know what kind of reach has? Do you have a clear idea of how many people don’t read it?

Might it not be a good idea to produce a simple leaflet for all parents, teachers, school workers, school students and children that explains quite clearly what we should all be doing in September? You must know that your government’s voluntarist approach to the wearing of masks is counter-productive. Such measures have to be universal or the principle of social medicine is undermined.

You will have seen that the main teachers’ union, the NEU, has called for teachers to have the right to wear masks. At present, I learn from social media that some schools won’t be implementing this. Though it’s clear that mask-wearing of itself is not a sufficient anti-infection method, in conjunction with clearly defined social distancing and regular, thorough handwashing we have three processes that if universally applied are good preventive measures.

Having been through this myself and now with some irreversible effects, I am deeply worried for teachers and parents, as well as children.

There is still time for you and your colleagues to make every school safe, and every school community informed and on board with what needs to be done.

Yours, Michael Rosen