The most powerful tool for better health is education. To get our country off its sickbed and functioning again, it is crucial that we fully reopen both our schools and our universities.
But that won’t happen as long as millions are terrified of returning to normal life. The Government urgently needs to send out a clear, concise message that the risk from Covid-19 is currently low.
This is evidenced by the death toll. It is vital that people understand that the mortality rate and the number of hospital admissions are the key figures – not the infection rate.
On Sunday, just a single death from Covid-19 was reported in Britain. That’s one person out of a population of roughly 66million. Yesterday, it was two people – every death a personal tragedy for the families involved, but statistically a very low number.
Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-based Medicine, wants to see all children back at school
There are currently about 430 people in critical care beds being treated for the novel coronavirus. That is compared to 17,000 at the height of the crisis in April. The gulf is vast.
Don’t be misled, as so many people are, by the rise in infections nationally. On Sunday, 1,715 people across Britain tested positive for Covid-19, the most since early June. It’s easy to misinterpret that data and to assume that we’re in the grip of the feared ‘second wave’.
We are not. There is currently no second wave. What we are seeing is a sharp rise in the number of healthy people who are carrying the virus, but exhibiting no symptoms. Almost all of them are young. They are being spotted because – finally – a comprehensive system of national test and trace is in place.
And while young people might have an infection, they appear well and healthy, not showing any symptoms.
We also need to reassure parents that it’s safe for children to return to school this week. School-age pupils are the least likely to display any Covid-19 symptoms, and it will be a tragedy if they are denied the chance to restart their education by ill-founded fears.
We need our children to be smarter than ourselves to ensure we do not repeat the mistakes of our current generation – we need them to be in class.
Pupils at Rosshall Academy wear face coverings as it becomes mandatory in corridors and communal areas on August 31,
The alarmists will say that such asymptomatic people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus – and are perhaps even more dangerous, because they don’t know they have it. That fear simply is not borne out by the experience of the past six months.
On the contrary, when the whole country was locked down, it was the younger people who remained free of the infection. And while everyone stayed home, it spread like wildfire in our hospitals and, most deadly of all, in care homes for the elderly.
Care home cases have now fallen sharply, though we have yet to eradicate the danger. We know that infection rates have risen among the young, but we are not seeing any subsequent infections among the elderly.
The evidence is becoming clearer. Young people provide no protection to older members of society by staying away from school, university and work. But they wreak terrible long-term damage in other ways by maintaining their social isolation.
For anyone who has been sheltering since March, the situation seems frightening. If you haven’t set foot in your office for months, naturally you will be anxious.
And how much worse that is for children and students who haven’t seen the inside of a classroom or lecture theatre since the spring. They need reassurance, and it is the job of teachers and lecturers to provide that.
Boris Johnson wants the re-opening of our schools to be the springboard that brings the rest of Britain back to normality
That’s why I am disappointed with any lecturer or university official claiming they are being forced into the firing line by uncaring ministers. We have to find a compromise that reflects the critical need to get students back into lectures and tutorials.
As a university lecturer myself, I know the answer is to be pragmatic. We can ensure proper social distancing is observed, by moving some (but far from all) of the work online. Large groups can then be split up and seen on a staggered schedule. We need to apply common sense to get Britain’s education back on track. If that doesn’t happen, the consequences will be catastrophic. Some activists want colleges to stay closed until January, which is ludicrous – everything we know about coronavirus pathogens tells us they are more virulent in winter. We might be in the grip of a genuine second wave by the New Year.
What happens then? If the spring term is cancelled, following an autumn no-show, university students will have been left to drift for a year. It’s hard to imagine the system could ever fully recover: our top tier of education, the envy of the world, will be irreparably damaged.
That is brutally unfair on young people whose lives will be permanently affected. It will also have a devastating effect on the country’s capacity to recover from the pandemic. We need young people with world-class education to reboot our economy. Without them, we are lost.
Denied the opportunity to complete the education that they have worked for all their lives, hundreds of thousands of young people’s health and wellbeing could suffer. A new epidemic, far more insidious and afflicting the youngest generation of adults, will take hold.
We can all do our bit to suppress the spread of the infection. We need to be vigilant and flexible. Anyone who has even mild symptoms should get themselves tested, and self-isolate until they get their results back. Hand-washing and social distancing are as essential as ever.
These precautions have been effective in pubs and restaurants. We need the courage to apply them in the workplace too. There’s no reason to fear infection in shops and offices – and everything to fear if we can’t get them running normally again.
Above all, we need to restart our universities. They are Britain’s brains trust, a resource of inestimable value for both students and the whole economy. We cannot allow them to disintegrate.
Professor Carl Heneghan is director of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Evidence-based Medicine