We look back at last week’s coronavirus situation in the UK, the government’s lockdown exit strategy, school reopening plans, Boris Johnson’s promise of better days soon, lack of transparency in government, and more...

First published in February 2021.

Reopening ALL schools in one go?

On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented his government’s roadmap out of the lockdown. The strategy highlights, among other issues, the importance of vaccine rollout, vaccine effectiveness, keeping the level of infections down, and the risks of new variants.

The strategy was presented on the government website with the headline:

“Cautiously”? Certainly, the plan appears to have been guided by the science and the data – to some extent – and some readers will be positive about the plan. Others less so, for a variety of reasons.

The introduction on the website announced as follows:

That statement appears all well and good. However, there are some concerns about how Boris Johnson’s lockdown roadmap will work in practice and the impact of fully opening all schools simultaneously.

As Professor Stephen David Reicher, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of St Andrews, wrote in a short piece in The Guardian, in response to the PM’s roadmap (alongside Professor Devi Sridhar, Professor Graham Medley and Jennifer Dowd), How cautious is it to open schools in one go? How irreversible to counterpose vaccinate to infection suppression?”

“Without clear measures to keep infections down once restrictions are lifted, how can we be sure that the road map out of lockdown will be ‘irreversible’?

Will the impact of all schools fully reopening on 8 March simply be a bridge too far? The risk of an upsurge in infections remains a very real concern, alongside the potential impact of new, more transmissible and harmful Covid-19 variants, the level of infections, the spread of the disease, and the continuing pressure on our NHS.

The detail of the government’s roadmap out of the lockdown is now being absorbed and analysed. As mentioned above, key aspects relate to the importance of vaccine rollout, vaccine effectiveness, keeping the infection level down, and the potential risks presented by new variants, which must not be ignored. And in relation to this being a ‘cautious’ roadmap, the plan states,

The Government has taken the best scientific advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its working groups on the pace and sequencing of reopening. This analysis is being published by SAGE to inform the public of the scientific and evidential basis that has helped to shape the roadmap.”

One is perhaps left wondering, what exactly did SAGE scientists advise, and how rigorously has that advice been followed?

Especially given the highlighted note below (SPI-M-O subcommittee of SAGE):

SPI-M-O: Statement on relaxation of NPIs and the re-opening of schools, 27 January 2021.

This week’s data emphasise the importance of exiting from lockdown with great care. In particular, from the first stage, which begins on 8 March.

We have to hope that the full reopening of all schools on this date doesn’t trigger an increase in virus transmission. Especially given the note below from the latest publication by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) of its weekly, Coronavirus (COVID-19) Infection Survey (date 26 February 2021),

“The percentage testing positive in England has decreased in all age groups except School Year 7 to School Year 11 and School Year 12 to age 24, where the trend is uncertain.”

A worrying note, to say the least.

Whereas the ONS observation was worrying, the decision by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) not to prioritise early years workers, teachers, police and other key workers for the Covid-19 jab was controversial. If the government is serious about reopening schools on March 8, parents, teachers, and school leaders believe that the JCVI decision should be urgently reviewed. A petition that calls for these workers, who cannot distance or use PPE equipment, to be next on the priority list in order to be kept safe in education settings, has already gathered over 500,000 signatures.

The stark warning by Professor Jonathan Van-Tam in Friday’s coronavirus briefing – in essence, “We are not there yet, we mustn’t wreck it now” – is a clear reminder that the battle is not over yet, and in some areas, and age groups, infection levels are still uncertain, if not rising.

Professor Jonathan Van-Tam. | Flickr-Number 10

Data, the ultimate power

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver pledged on 17 April 2020 that to ease Covid measures in the famous US basketball league, it was all about “the data, not the date”.

Last week, it was Boris Johnson – who seems to have somewhat developed a habit of reusing other people’s slogans – who repeated the phrase as he presented his lockdown exit plan to the nation, but did he mean it?

There is indeed nothing like a prime minister going to Parliament to explain to MPs that his grand reopening strategy is all data-driven, not date-driven… who then starts setting out actual dates for the various stages of the very plan and presents little, or no, supporting data.

If we can probably all agree that putting dates before data is wrong, putting data before dates doesn’t necessarily mean following the science either. Can’t corrupt data mislead leaders? Can’t misleading leaders corrupt, or ignore the data?

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There is an old saying, “knowledge is power”. Has it ever been more true than today? Perhaps it should be updated and rephrased, given the past year. How about, “data is ultimate power”? There is another old saying, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”.

These two perhaps need to be brought together, given recent issues relating to the Covid-19 pandemic, and politics in general. Especially considering how data and power have ‘allegedly’ been used to create an unfair advantage for some.

The people responsible for these two quotes are also worth noting.

The phrase “knowledge is power” is often attributed to Francis Bacon, from his Meditationes Sacrae (1597). It is sometimes written as “ipsa scientia potestas est”, meaning “knowledge itself is power”, though it would seem that there is no known occurrence of this precise phrase in Bacon’s English or Latin writings.

Apparently, the proverbial saying “power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely” conveys the opinion that, as a person’s power increases, their moral sense diminishes. “Absolute power corrupts absolutely” is the best-known quotation of the 19th-century British politician Lord Acton.

PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10

Is transparency the key, especially in government?

Knowledge, data and power – all have become important elements, and influences, during this pandemic. The public has often been left wondering who to believe in these dark and uncertain times. Who ultimately has the clearest view of the situation, of the data, of the science, the scientific advice, and therefore the options that government has in relation to the future pandemic strategy?

And who portrays the most balanced, and accurate view, of the nation’s future and the risks and benefits of options and decisions? Are we assured, and reassured, by the press briefings from Number 10 Downing Street, led by the politician of the day, and the government’s chosen advisers? Do we read, respect, understand, and value the reports, and information, provided through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)?

What of those chosen few allowed to join in at the Number 10 briefings? The carefully selected ‘members of the public’ and journalists (virtually) present at the briefings, who are able to ask a couple of questions only about the situation. Not forgetting, the (understandably) endless reports in the media, whether through newsprint, TV, radio, or their online presence. And then, of course, social media, and its dubious sub-sets, ‘unsocial media’, and ‘destructive, irresponsible, malicious, flawed, and false, media’?

Confidence is another key element of the situation. It is clear that determining which source of information to trust has never been more of a challenge for us all. It is also clear that the pandemic, and its apparent mismanagement by government in some key aspects, has created mistrust and uncertainty, and as a result damaged public confidence, which was already at a low point because of Brexit.

There is a long list of questions that will need to be confronted in the independent ‘review of the government’s pandemic management strategy’, when this eventually happens.

The UK policy on public procurement appears to be one area that will need particularly careful scrutiny.

And so we come to what has become “a very public affair”those questions raised about the award of contracts by government during the pandemic. None more high profile than that brought to the High Court by the Good Law Project.

In essence, in its fight for transparency, the Good Law Project summarised the outcome below,

“The High Court has now ruled “The Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy” and that “there is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.” We have won the judicial review we brought with Debbie Abrahams MP, Caroline Lucas MP, and Layla Moran MP.”

The fight for transparency will continue so long as we have governments that believe that they are able to act in this way.

And now, as the past seven days become the week that was, we begin a new week with the opening part of this Week in Covid-19. Will this sixty-page government strategy, currently being unwrapped and scrutinised, offer a glimmer of hope? Is it genuinely an irreversible plan, really? Why would we want it to be? The devil will be in the detail, and this will occupy the good, the bad and the ugly sections of our media for at least the next 20 weeks.

Perhaps to finish with one small example from the government’s strategy paper, just to emphasise how the devil really is in the detail:

“Ahead of Step 4, as more is understood about the impact of vaccines on transmission and a far greater proportion of the population has been vaccinated, the Government will complete a review of social distancing measures and other long-term measures that have been put in place to limit transmission. The results of the review will help inform decisions on the timing and circumstances under which rules on 1m+, face masks and other measures may be lifted. The review will also inform guidance on working from home – people should continue to work from home where they can until this review is complete.”

If it is indeed sensible to review ALL the plan’s four stages very carefully, meticulously, and comprehensively, why is the government returning in this important document to ‘1m+’ reference, and why so little focus on masks? Any thoughts of lifting ‘distancing’ in the summer must surely be hugely aspirational at this moment in time, given the risks, the history of previous waves, and importantly the data.

Time will indeed, tell us. 

PM Boris Johnson. | Number 10

Dr Joe Pajak, professional experience scientific research and development, principal of a community college, director of education, then director of a national children’s charity, trustee of a disability charity, and governor of NHS foundation trust hospitals.
J.N. PAQUET, Author & Journalist, Editor of PMP Magazine.


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🗳️ Boris Johnson

🗳️ James Cleverly

[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 26 February 2021. | The authors write in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson visits Sedgehill Academy. | 23 February 2021. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)

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