Schools must stay open and here’s how to achieve it

6 Nov 2020, 5:00

The former prime minister reveals a long-term strategy that he says will build confidence to keep schools open

Covid-19 has already deprived 300 million children of their education worldwide. We cannot let this happen again and must do everything in our power to keep schools open throughout and beyond this second lockdown. It is essential that parents and staff have confidence in measures to keep schools open, not least because low attendance will disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged young people.

To get this right requires a long-term, clear strategy that restores confidence and addresses the legitimate concerns of teachers, parents and pupils while introducing new measures to curtail outbreaks in schools.

Such a strategy was set out this week in my institute’s paper, Light at the End of the Tunnel. It brings together four distinct pillars: testing, therapeutics, vaccines and data. For each, ministers must work with experts throughout November to build infrastructure and speed up the safe introduction of new technologies.

Mass testing must be available to every school that needs it

Mass testing must be available to every school that needs it. Weekly testing of a school’s population will identify asymptomatic carriers – especially prevalent amongst children and young adults – and localised tracing capability will allow us to track infections back to their source. This necessitates the introduction of new, rapid, on-the-spot tests that are easy to administer. We know they work, we know they’re available: they must be rolled out now.

There are lessons from elsewhere too. The University of Illinois has led the way in education-based testing by repurposing large trailers to conduct 10,000 tests a day on campus, using readily available equipment and student-friendly saliva tests. We could and should produce a significant number of our own testing trucks, deploying them to schools. Over time, a network of mobile testing labs could service the entire education sector.

At the same time, we must do everything possible to safely speed up the introduction of promising drugs that will save lives, and the vaccines that will reduce the impact of infection on our teachers and those most at risk from Covid.

Safety cannot be compromised. This is not to say that the processes to confirm safety can’t be sped up, but simply that no drug or vaccine – no matter how promising it might be – should leave the door without being certified as 100 per cent safe. As our paper sets out, hundreds of thousands of people around the world have participated in more than 50 trials and there have been no reported serious side-effects.

Therapeutic drug trials should be extended to every eligible patient, rather than the 10 per cent who are currently participating, and our question shouldn’t be “how well” a drug works but “if” it works at all. As soon as a therapeutic drug is deemed safe, it should be offered to patients most at risk.

When a vaccine reaches a minimum level of “efficacy”, this should trigger its approval. Even 50 per cent efficacy – meaning that it will reduce the severity of infection by half – will save lives. For those who would only ever get a mild infection or no symptoms at all, such as younger adults, it’s likely they may not be infectious at all.

A safe and effective vaccine should be distributed to NHS and care home workers in December, quickly followed by teachers and those most at risk from Covid. This would secure our hospitals and protect schools in the difficult winter months ahead.

High-quality data is just as important as the three other pillars. A system that connects the tests we take, the vaccines we receive and the drugs we’re given is vital if we’re to continue building our understanding of how and where the virus is spreading and how to treat it.

This strategy would massively benefit teachers, protecting their health while giving them the confidence to keep doing what they do best – teach. It would mark the biggest peacetime operation in our country’s history but it’s worth it for the reward. Hope. Hope that our education remains open and protected. Hope that we can beat back Covid-19. Hope that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

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One comment

  1. Janet Downs

    No-one knows if those who would only be mildly infected ‘may not be infectious at all.’ And where is this ‘safe and effective vaccine’ which Blair says should be available for distribution to health and care workers in December, just three weeks away? It’s true we need to find a way of living with the virus but wishful thinking isn’t the way forward.