Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Newspaper column 20 May - COVID Update 9

It has certainly been another eventful week in our progress towards beating the Coronavirus.

Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of some small relaxation of the lockdown there was understandably a great deal of concern as to how this would play out here in Cornwall. I was pleased to see that generally, the vast majority of people, continued to apply common sense and enjoyed the new freedom we have in a responsible manner.

Thankfully, we did not see an influx of day trippers as some had feared and although there was certainly more traffic on the roads this was mostly locals moving about for work and local recreation. The Police reported only a slight increase of traffic on the A30 and although some were expecting a long line of caravans and campers heading our way this simply did not materialise.

It is important we all continue to behave in a responsible way. We cannot stay in lockdown forever and as we continue to see progress made in fighting this virus, there will be further relaxations of the restriction. But these will only be made on the basis of scientific advice and when it is safe to do so.

 The other big issue last week was the proposals to begin to reopen schools from 1st June. I am sure we will all agree that getting our children back into school as soon as it is safe to do so should be a priority. Pupils have already missed more than half a term of education and we know that prolonged time out of the classroom can be difficult to catch up on. This is particularly true for younger children. It is well established that time in the classroom in the early years is vital to a child’s ongoing education and attainment later in life.

However there has been a debate, particularly from the teaching unions, as to whether now is the right time to start to bring children back.

I think it is worth noting that of course many schools have remained open throughout this crisis, providing schooling for children of key workers. I want to again thank all those teachers and other school staff who have continued to go to work to provide this essential service.

I understand that no parent wants to take unnecessary risks in sending their child back to school. But we also need to keep things in balance. There is good evidence that children are at much lower risk from the virus.

Many parents will also need to be able to get their children back to school in order for them to be able to return to work.

It is unrealistic, to say that we cannot reopen schools until it is 100% safe to do so, as some are suggesting. Life always has inherent risks and we manage those risks every day. The only way we could ever say schools are 100% safe from Coronavirus would be if and when a vaccine is available. But this could still be many months, even years, away, if ever.

It is also worth noting that other European countries reopened their schools several weeks ago and have managed to do so safely and there have been no reported adverse consequences.

Many key workers have been managing the risks of this crisis for 8 weeks now. Our NHS staff, care workers, pharmacy staff, the Police and Fire Service and those who have kept our supermarkets and other essential provisions open. They have all had to face risks and work to reduce the risk whilst accepting it cannot be totally removed.

This is the approach we are all going to need in the coming weeks to get back to work, to get the economy moving.

Reopening our schools will be an important milestone in our progress out of lockdown. It needs to be taken in a measured and pragmatic way based on clear scientific advice. This is the approach the government are taking. The proposal is to begin doing so at the start of June, at the same time that Parliament is also likely to return, provided we continue to make steady progress. I am aware discussions are ongoing between the government and teaching unions to enable this to happen.

The Schools Commissioner, Anne Longfield, has said that schools need to open as soon as possible, particularly in the interest of the most vulnerable children in our communities who are most at risk from the continued closure. She has told the teaching unions and government to ‘stop squabbling and agree a plan’.  I tend to agree with her. We need to work together in the best interests of our children and wider communities. Getting our children back to school as soon as possible is important for a number of reasons and I really hope everyone who needs to will work together to find a way for this to happen.