Enough blustery promises – schools need real support

The government is talking about millions of Covid tests every day – and yet pupils and staff are struggling to get tested. Let's deal with reality, not dreams, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Smoke, billowing from factory chimneys

As the American historian John M Barry taught us: “When you mix politics and science, you get politics.” 

And so it has felt this week.

Two numbers tell the story of the gap between the reality of fighting the Covid crisis and the tendency of the government to make grandiose pronouncements that subsequently unravel – when what we wearily crave is action rather than rhetoric.

Here’s what I mean. The first number is 10 and the second is 100 billion.

Ten is the number of home-testing kits that have been distributed by the government to each school in England. The inadequacy of this provision has been swiftly exposed by the problems that staff and parents are having in accessing Covid tests.

Unacceptable delays

Here at the Association of School and College Leaders, we asked members for feedback on this issue in a bulletin on Wednesday afternoon, and within a few hours, we had received 200 replies.

They revealed an all-too-predictable tale of a test and trace system that is clearly struggling to cope with demand, resulting in unacceptable delays in securing a test, and bizarre directions to individuals to visit testing stations hundreds of miles from their homes.

The government’s much-vaunted promise of a fully effective system to support the reopening of schools appears to be just as many hundreds of miles from what is happening on the ground.

Which brings us back to those home-testing kits. 

According to the Department for Education, the 10 home-testing kits supplied to each school should be used only in the “exceptional circumstance” that “an individual may have barriers to accessing testing elsewhere”.

As we can clearly see, however, difficulty in accessing tests is far from being an exceptional circumstance. In fact, it turns out to be a fairly routine circumstance and, very obviously, 10 home-testing kits per school is hopelessly inadequate.

And that snide passing comment by the health secretary, that access to testing was somehow being hampered by schools themselves, was a particular low point from a government quick to blame and slow to accept how its own blustery promises damage its credibility, hour by hour. 

Blustery promises

As blustery promises go, that figure of £100 billion pounds is a particularly eye-watering example of the genre. 

It is, it seems, the amount of money that it would reportedly cost to deliver Operation Moonshot – a plan to carry out millions of Covid tests a day by early next year, announced by the prime minister on Wednesday.

To put the figure into context, it is approaching the entire annual budget for the NHS in England (£130 billion). And it turns out that there is another significant problem – namely, that the technology to deliver this programme apparently doesn’t yet exist. Moonshot may yet turn out simply to be moonshine.

The BBC reported the comments of Dr David Strain, clinical senior lecturer at the University of Exeter and chairman of the BMA's medical academic staff committee.

"The prime minister's suggestion that this will be as simple as 'getting a pregnancy test' that will give results within 15 minutes is unlikely, if not impossible, in the timescale he was suggesting to get the country back on track,” he said.

Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, summed it up in the British Medical Journal, with his observation that the plans bore the hallmark of a government “whose ambition far exceeds its ability to deliver”.

He said: “This plan transmits unbounded optimism, disregarding the enormous problems with the existing testing and tracing programmes.”

The yawning chasm between reality and rhetoric

And that above all is the central point here. The immediate, pressing priority is making sure the existing test and trace system works more effectively.

As we have said before, this is not a criticism of the health workers involved in that programme. We are all fully aware of the huge pressure under which they are working, and the difficulty of the circumstances in which they have been placed.

Our frustration is with a government that absolutely had to ensure that the capacity of the system would match the level of demand, and just hasn’t managed to do that. 

The yawning chasm between the reality and the rhetoric is reflected in those two figures: 10 and £100 billion. 

It is surely not too much to ask that the government invests more in dealing with the present situation than in talking up a future plan, which may not even be deliverable.

A good start would be to invest in supplying schools with many more home-testing kits, and – while we are on the subject – reimbursing them for the extra costs of implementing real and actual Covid-safety measures.

School and college leaders and their staff have spent the summer doing the nitty-gritty meticulous work of putting those controls in place, and are now re-establishing some semblance of normality to resume full learning for the nation’s young people. 

They, the staff in our schools and colleges, are actually doing – not lecturing, not over-promising, not making excuses, not blaming. They are doing.

Now they need the government to do the same painstakingly detailed work in supporting them, by relentlessly making sure that the test and trace system works effectively. 

More science, please, and less politics: that is how we will keep our schools open.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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