This week is not the first time that clarity has been lacking from the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. But it is alarming that, less than a fortnight before Christmas, the messages from ministers should be so mixed. The decision announced on Monday by the health secretary, Matt Hancock, to place London, along with parts of Essex and Hertfordshire, under tier 3 restrictions from Wednesday, follows logically enough from data showing that hospital admissions in England are up by 13%. Worryingly, Mr Hancock said that rising case numbers in the south could be linked to the discovery of a new variant of Covid-19. But while decision-making based on the latest scientific evidence must, of course, be welcomed, this latest tightening of restrictions does not sit well with the attitude taken by ministers to English schools over recent days, or to the promises made to the public with regard to Christmas.
Just last week the schools minister, Nick Gibb, wrote to the headteacher of a school in Ware, Hertfordshire, warning that the government could use its powers under the Coronavirus Act to prevent schools such as his from carrying out plans to send most pupils home before the end of term and switch to remote learning. In a similar vein, suggestions from unions that schools might operate remotely at the start of next term, in order to decrease the chances that contacts over the festive period could lead to a spike in infections, were rebuffed.
Yet school leaders, and councils including Greenwich, that have asked headteachers to switch to remote learning for the final few days of term, appear more in touch than ministers with the realities – and risks – of the situation they have created, by promising the public that get-togethers of up to three families could go ahead over the festive period. It remains unclear how Boris Johnson and his cabinet became convinced that closing schools for just the usual fortnight could be considered compatible with a plan to relax the pandemic restrictions below even the tier 1 level, under which gatherings of people who do not live together, and are not part of the same support bubble, are limited to six.
The deterioriating situation in London and parts of the south-east should not obscure the fact that cases in some areas, including Manchester, have recently fallen, presumably as a consequence of the tougher restrictions that have been in place. Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, thinks there is a “strong case” for further relaxation. Family Christmases in parts of the country where the rate of infection has remained low – for example, Cornwall – were always likely to be less risky than in others.
But what do ministers propose to do about this? Introducing a degree of local flexibility to the official response to the pandemic was sound in principle. But this approach was always going to require careful implementation. Already, northern MPs are furious that schools in their areas have not had the same access to testing. Now ministers appear increasingly locked into a combative approach, attacking the school leaders who should be their partners, even as reports emerge of teachers under enormous stress.
Prioritising education was the correct call by the government. It enabled some semblance of normality through a difficult autumn – even if many questions, such as the fate of next summer’s exams, remain. A vaccine rollout is under way. But with hospital admissions rising and the never-ending difficulties surrounding Brexit, the seasonal holiday from Covid‑19 that Mr Johnson offered to a hopeful public looks increasingly like yet another false prospectus.