It is essential to read all my posts on the subject of the coronavirus in the recognition that I am not a virologist, nor an immunologist, nor indeed a biologist of any sort. They are designed to pose questions on the basis of the information available.
Today’s piece is written to try to open some kind of informed debate about how we answer what is an increasingly pressing question: might it, in fact, be safer to send pupils back to school in Northern Ireland, than have youths (and even families) congregating in an unmanaged way across various beauty spots?
On all the issues around the coronavirus, I am absolutely certain about only two: firstly, we have to test a lot (and with a purpose) to understand the virus; and secondly, there is no point in (effectively) closing schools if you do not proceed immediately to lockdown (i.e. universal curfew). The second point is relevant here, because as we come out of the lockdown in Northern Ireland, we are opening things up but we still have schools (effectively) closed.
From the very first Imperial model, but also through pure common sense, as soon as you raise curfew but do not have pupils at school, you are creating for yourself in practice an unmanageable problem. Families with older children essentially have two options – either they stay off work and find ways to entertain the children, which on a sunny day probably means heading out to a beauty spot with lots of other people who have made the same decision; or they go to work and leave the children to do their own thing, which on a sunny day probably means heading out to a beauty spot with lots of other people who have made the same decision…
In terms of the virus itself, this is unlikely to be a significant problem, although it is not ideal. The key is to avoid the three ‘C’s – closed spaces, contact, and crowds – and gatherings at beauty spots are a worry only for the third of these (maybe in some cases the second). Nevertheless, the situation is unmanaged and, at least to some extent, practically unmanageable – once drink is added to the equation and inhibitions are reduced, as we have seen, outcomes include police officers being assaulted, drunken anti-social behaviour, and mass littering; alongside, it has to be said, the unlikely but certainly possible careless further transmission of the virus.
Assault, anti-social behaviour and littering are not excusable but, realistically, they are a predictable consequence of the restrictions as they stand. There is nowhere else to congregate but beauty spots (i.e. beaches, parks etc); and working parents and care givers are now faced with unenviable choices in terms of balancing their professional and family lives as work re-starts but schools remain effectively “closed”.
As I have written before on these pages, there is in fact no “safe” option here. The status quo is not safe – it leads to crowds, albeit of people not particularly vulnerable to the virus gathering outdoors; it also leads to general disturbance (not least for residents nearby who may be shielding or otherwise feel vulnerable who then face further stress).
So the question must arise: would “re-opening” schools, if only for three weeks and even if part-time, in fact be the safer option? It would mean that at least some young people would have somewhere to go; parents would have space to work (and indeed sort other things); and the danger of crowds would be less apparent.
In terms of the virus itself, we are finding increasingly that the task is to avoid “super-spreading”; if we can do this (and we are increasing our knowledge in this regard), we may find the virus has been eliminated in Northern Ireland by the end of this month.
In Hong Kong, for example, studies now show that half of those infected became infected at just six events. In fact, seven out of every ten people infected with the virus there did not infect anyone else at all. In Germany, a single church service accounted for nearly a quarter of all new infections in the entire country on 10 May. Now that we understand better where the real dangers are, we will soon understand better how to manage the virus.
It should be emphasised that, with just 14 new cases confirmed yesterday on the entire island of Ireland despite testing being available to anyone with symptoms, realistically any further “wave” will have to be imported.
Remember, this is not ‘flu – failing to realise this was the core error in the UK’s and Ireland’s response. With a coronavirus the odds are probably against a further wave, but it is of course wise to be prepared.
There are other options too, of course. For example, many German States have an effective night-time curfew (the exact times vary, but 11pm to 6am would seem reasonable), meaning that outright lockdown is in effect re-applied at night. As case numbers continue to decline, perhaps organised sport could be re-started faster than initially intended as a managed diversion. Certainly there is a case for re-opening caravan sites and holiday homes well before 20 July, with the benefit of broadening the spaces in which people may spend time safely.
As the virus moves out of circulation (across much of the island of Ireland at least), these are the sorts of questions which need to be raised. The answers are, of course, best left to the experts.