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‘Man’ cannot live by bread alone is put to the test

This week has been momentous as emergency measures and lockdowns hit the UK along with most other countries. With the government finally releasing the reports and data that fed its ‘science-led’ approach today, comes a realisation that more should have been done sooner. Also, the impact on the lives of our people was understated in the last few weeks. The main casualty is trust. Whilst some seem surprised by the rapid onslaught of a virus, others are not surprised at all. There is a general sense that most organisations and government were caught ‘on the hop’ with few contingency plans. Amongst the near chaos, education is taking a back seat. The appreciation of art and culture is replaced by a struggle for survival of the economy and the lives of people affected. The effect on students of all ages is profound and some may see their sacrifice as the price to pay to protect older generations. This may become a price they cannot or do not want to afford as time goes on. Hiding in the mists of panic is the problem of a serious disadvantage gap widening. Not addressing this in the past is hitting hard now. The hope is that the current wake-up call leads to a new order of equality and organisation. Any alternative fuelled by selfishness and hoarding would collapse our society. But actions by the government today to order closures of bars and restaurants, and provide some protection of pay for those laid off, means that they finally have got the point. The cost is very high and a new country will emerge in the years to come. Let it be a fairer and better organised one.

School’s out for summer.

Serious concerns about the longer-term effects of the government measures to combat the disease COVID-19 (caused through infection by the novel Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, SARS-CoV-2) emerged as the week progressed. TEFS was already considering how disadvantaged students would suffer greater adverse effects when the Guardian rightly observed that ‘Fears that cancelling exams will hit BAME and poor pupils worst’. The simple fact is that students from poorer backgrounds often get final grades that are higher than those predicted. The Sutton Trust established this in stark detail with ‘Rules of the Game’ back in 2017. With all schools out for the summer, and exams cancelled, it seems that they will bear the brunt of the disadvantage. Better-off students will gain a significant head start as unconditional offers become the norm. Many will also gain access to private tutoring and expert advice that is missing in the lives of their poorer peers. It is a form of ‘panic buying’ that affects careers and education in a profound way. Time will tell how wide the disadvantage gap becomes as the lockdown continues. It is expected to last to the end of the year at least. But could also impact on the lives of many affected.

A call to protect the least advantaged.

Unless some adjustment is made to move to contextual admission decisions by universities, then there will be many disappointed and angry students stuck for another year. Those that stored up most of their efforts till the summer examinations will pay a heavy price as the opportunity to improve is snatched from them. It is therefore essential that the government looks closely at the implications of the Sutton Trust in its recent research ‘Fairer School Admissions’ from 27th February 2020. It could not be timelier as the crisis drives a wider wedge between the advantaged and disadvantaged. The simple fact is that disadvantaged students are falling behind at an early stage. The Sutton Trust advocated adjustments to be made in entry requirements with ‘Admissions in Context’ in 2017. Now is the time for government and universities to step up and act in the interests of fairness. Failure to do this will store up many serious problems in the future.

University students adjust to stay in education.

All universities have moved to make some attempt at online teaching and asked their students to simply go away. Most will head home to their parents where they can expect support, private access to the internet and a desk. But a significant number will not have this luxury. Many will be estranged from parents as highlighted by the charity Stand Alone, and many more will have homes with few resources to study. Those that rely on part-time jobs will hang on as long as they can but will probably find that employment is elusive and gone at this time. Last week, TEFS looked at the impact on these students with ‘Impact of Coronavirus measures on the working student: The nudge that breaks the camel’s back’. By today, most university libraries and shared internet access facilities have been closed. Students who relied on this to study and complete assignments will be cut off if they cannot make alternative arrangements.

Again, it is stressed that universities must offer accommodation with internet access to all students that have no other option. Enhanced hardship funds are urgently needed to support students who find their job income gone. This is not an option but essential if any semblance of fairness is to survive.

A matter of trust.

There now exists a serious lack of confidence in the government and how it has dealt with the crisis to date. A failure to follow WHO guidelines early enough, and a lack of openness and integrity at the start, has fuelled distrust. The result has been a run on grocery items and stock piling beyond what is needed. The people doing this simply do not believe or trust the government. This judgement has its roots in the advice given early on.

Last week has seen the government mantra of four stages of ‘Containment, Delay, Research and Mitigate’ dissolve into near panic. The strategy was billed as being ‘led by the science’ and it is telling that it means that it was also not ‘led by the scientists’. This was reported as the position up to the first week of March (Independent 8th March 2020 ‘Coronavirus: What the government’s four stages to fight the disease mean’. ‘Mitigate’ assumed that up to 80% of the population would get the COVID-19 disease. However, many scientists were greatly disturbed and wanted to see the underlying data that led to this decision;  but it was withheld. The simple fact is that the initial outbreak in China had shown that the infectivity ratio (R0) was around 2.4. The government had seen clear advice to this effect back on the 25th January in ‘Report 3: Transmissibility of 2019-nCoV’. This was a fairly high ratio and it meant that almost 60% of the population would need to become immune to reach protection from so-called ‘herd immunity’. This is a technical term in epidemiology and hitherto has referred to the target for vaccination of a population. It had not been used before in the context of a disease for which there is no vaccine. What the government failed to reveal from the ‘science’ advice that their strategy would see around 390,000 deaths to achieve herd immunity.

Once scientists started to reveal the consequences last week (this included the Chief Scientist in a media referring to ‘herd immunity’) the cat was out of the bag. Under immense pressure from various scientific bodies, including the British Society for Immunology, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) decided to reveal their data sources but said it could take weeks. By Monday, the latest 9th report of the Imperial College Group, ‘Report 9: ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID-19 mortality and healthcare demand’ was released. The government hid their embarrassment by saying this was new information and the strategy would change from ‘mitigation’ to ‘suppression’. This was not strictly ‘new’ knowledge and a major U-turn has been taken under considerable pressure. Whilst some of the data was indeed more recent from the outbreak in Italy, the underlying information was the same as it was back in January. The projections were still using infectivity rations (R0) close to the calculation from China.

Action finally getting underway properly today.

Finally, today the government released the data behind their decisions with ‘Coronavirus (COVID-19): scientific evidence supporting the UK government response’. Its makes for grim reading and a profound sense that this could have been made clear much earlier. Indeed, it is also clear that the evidence for transmissibility of the virus goes back to 25th January 2020. We should have acted much sooner when this information was first known. The economic impact is massive and could not have been avoided. But we could, and should, have been better prepared.

News today that employees will have their income protected in some way up to 80% also comes as very welcome to those most affected (BBC News today ‘Wages cover for businesses hit by virus outlined’). Students relying on their modest income to stay the course will need this help to arrive fast. Along with the fear of eviction and mortgage default being taken out of the equation earlier in the week, it seems people will rest easier this weekend. Hopefully, the help will come in time for the most disadvantaged to survive the crisis. It is late but welcome nevertheless.

Any trust we had in the government telling us the truth has taken a hard knock. We seem to have been faced with a government that was prepared to sacrifice hundreds of thousands of its citizens to protect the economy and business. Unsurprisingly, this tactic was failing from the start. Under pressure, the initial approach has been replaced by ‘suppression’ of the virus and help given to people to cope. But it has come late in the process in an atmosphere of mistrust. We are finally in a position where we know what is correct and appreciate the full implications before us. Science is not ‘leading’ the situation and the response. This is not possible. Science informs the government of the various options and their consequences with the best information available. The government has to make the decision; even though they clearly do not have experience of, or understand, the science. The consequences were known in January, but the government took a line that would have been devastating. Now we have an about-turn and people know what the challenge is and can hopefully cope. 
Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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