Why shutting schools would be a disaster for children, parents and the economy

Prime minister Boris Johnson has revealed the government is negotating to buy anti-body tests Matt D

Prime minister Boris Johnson has revealed the government is negotating to buy anti-body tests Matt Dunham/PA Wire - Credit: PA

There has been something of a clamour to close schools in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

Understandable perhaps as the virus threatens to sweep through the population and the vulnerable are forced to completely alter their lifestyles.

But for a considerable time the government held off shutting the school gates and sending pupils home. And during that time Boris Johnson and his ministers suffered a lot of criticism.

In parts of the United States and Europe children have been at home for sometime – and no doubt telling their parents how utterly bored they are.

But why do we believe that just because one nation has enacted a certain policy we should blindly follow?

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Very few of us – and certainly not I – are experts when it comes to the spread of infectious diseases. And no-one has ever lived through something like this before.

So, we have to trust the medical experts. We have to trust the science. Even if the logic appears to suggest something quite different.

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If there is a positive with coronavirus it is that children appear at this stage to be largely safe. Yes they can carry the virus and yes they can become sick. But that appears to be as far as it goes.

So closing schools will, it seems, do little to help. In fact the prime minister said as much when he announced the closures. This could make everything a lot worse.

Firstly let us consider the children themselves. Now, I am sure many youngsters were desperate for an extended holiday. Most will be dreaming of long days playing computer games, in the park with their pals and simply not having to do maths.

But when they are at school they are safe.

And, tragically, for some children school is their only truly safe place.

School dinners are much-maligned. But for many families they are a lifeline. The added cost of feeding children at lunchtime for families who might well already be struggling with the financial strain of coronavirus is significant.

The PM has said these children will be catered for. How?

And what about the parents?

Many do not have the option of working from home. How are they expected to pay for childcare? Are they expected to take time off and potentially lose thousands of pounds?

Those most likely to be hit with unexpected childcare are aged 30-45. Guess what? That is the average age of frontline NHS staff. So as the health service creaks under the strain of the outbreak are we seriously suggesting taking potentially thousands of high-trained doctors and nurses out of circulation? Seriously? It seems so.

And then there are the grandparents who will end up looking after children – whatever the government’s warnings – when they are among the most at-risk groups.

As it stands I have not heard one good reason for panicking and sending children home. Not one. But here we are.

Yes individual schools would have more than likely had to close in the coming weeks and months as staff themselves were unable to come into work because they are ill. But those closures should have been temporary.

Most teachers will be desperate to carry on doing their jobs – and school is not just about teaching. It is also about offering a society, offering structure.

Another compelling argument against is the economy. The government has already promised to pump billions upon billions into the economy to get us over this emergency. But detailed research is clear – even a four week break in schooling would dent the gross domestic product by 3pc. As it stands there is no end to the closures.

So that money the chancellor has pledged will be squandered. Lost. Utterly pointless. Britain is a wealthy nation but we can ill afford to pull the chain on billions.

This is a fast-moving issue and a nuanced approach is what was needed. In Japan individual classes were sent home only when numbers became particularly low. In Austria schools that were hit hard stayed open but suspend usually teaching in a bid to provide vital childcare.

And here is another startling piece of expert advice: For school closures to have even a small impact they would need to be closed for about three months. Perhaps longer. Is a generation of school children expected to stay back an academic year? We are told they will get the qualifications they deserve. Again, how?

The knock-on will be immense.

Coronavirus is going to have a massive, prolonged impact to our economy and beyond. Do we also want to jeopardise the education of our young people, their parents’ jobs and grandparents’ health?

Those demanding schools close were, in my opnion having researched it and listened to the expert advice, wrong. This decision appears to be more about pressure than sense – I believe it is the PM’s first misstep.

Now was not the time to panic – but closing the closes is a move prompted by just that.

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