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Blog Series #036: Education in the Time of COVID-19 – Towne

By CEID Blogger, on 3 July 2020

Health or Education? Polarised Risks in the United Kingdom

By Alexander Towne

In contrast to many East Asian nations, such as South Korea and Taiwan, the United Kingdom has failed to learn and apply lessons from the SARS and MERS epidemics of recent decades. There have been some inexcusable mistakes made both prior to and throughout this pandemic, ranging from a lack of Personal Protective Equipment reserves to a continued over-reliance on mathematical modelling, for which the government has already been criticised in previous epidemics. The rallying cry of the government seems to be that we are living through unprecedented times. However, the fact that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was able to speak of the failure to learn lessons in the Commons Liaison Committee shows the entirely predictable nature of our current predicament. Pandemics are a macabre fact of life, and each pandemic will inevitably present different forms and levels of risk to different segments of society. Working through such risks, both at an individual and societal level, involves balancing competing priorities and interests. This in turn creates the imperative for a set of nationally agreed upon ethical principles or values that reflect this balance and in turn inform more nuanced policy decisions.

In terms of the differing levels of risk, the ONS reports that the majority of deaths linked to Covid-19 have been individuals who are over 65, with 47% of these being over 85. This is 4 years above the average UK life expectancy and is juxtaposed with SAGE’s early recognition that children present the smallest health risk from the virus. In fact, people under 20 are 56% less likely to catch the virus than anyone older and are considerably less likely to suffer severe symptoms. Although it is true definitive evidence on the impact of school closures is yet to be produced, early studieshave indicated they have limited effects on the transmission of the virus and have highlighted the potential for negative spill-over effects, for example in family finances or mental health deterioration. Therefore, there is a polarised risk within society, with minimal risk among the under-20s and a heightened risk among the over-65s. Whilst each death is a calamity, it is unclear whether the government’s policy reflects genuine long-term ethical, and indeed economic, considerations or merely short-term political decision making. The stark political choice presented is who should pay the cost of containing this virus: older people, many of whose hard work and taxes helped build modern Britain, or the young, whose education and life chances lie in the balance. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union, and with it leaving behind its commitment to the European Convention on Human Rights, the government has a renewed responsibility to outline an ethical framework to adopt in this current crisis.

The ethical framework should begin with intergenerational fairness. Yet such a guiding principle is not common in UK policy. Although Wales have a Commissioner for Future Generations to safeguard intergenerational interests, and Scotland have a ‘Futures Forum’, there is currently no UK-wide equivalent. It is already clear that under-30s have been the hardest hit financially by the government’s ‘lockdown’ measures, and not only is there evidence to suggest that one fifth of school aged children are doing less than an hour of school work per day, but also a third of early-years facilities in disadvantaged areas are now expected to be permanently closed by the end of the year. This clearly shows that the under-30s are suffering the most from the government’s Covid-19 strategy. The Prime Minister has announced an ‘opportunities guarantee’ that may help mitigate some economic impact on those entering or early in the job market. However, more must be done to help the school age population, who cannot vote and until recently have been underrepresented in the national policy debate. A UK-wide ethical commitment to future Britons would place the issue of intergenerational fairness at the centre of the debate in crises such as this, and help governments develop more considered policies.

In the more disadvantaged sectors of society, the education deficit caused by the pandemic is certainly magnified. Evidence submitted to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger suggests that it takes up to six weeks for teachers to re-teach material forgotten over the summer period. The poor engagement rate with online learning is comparable to this period, and we cannot underestimate the detrimental impact this disruption will prospectively cause. School closures for the vast majority of students will now extend until September. If online classes continue as they have begun, this will constitute seven months without acceptable levels of access to school for many children and young people. Furthermore, if similar approaches are pursued in the event of a second wave of the virus, school closures have the potential to last over a year. Studies have shown that an additional year of schooling can have a significant impact on the returns from education, with some estimating up to an 8% effect on life-time earnings. Without wider access to education throughout the crisis, many younger citizens will suffer irreversible developmental and economic disadvantages. This will likely have a very real impact on their long-term employment, health and housing, and will deny many deserving individuals the chance to progress in society.

In this pandemic, I would argue that the risk for younger generations is not sufficient enough to justify the prolonged closure of schools. Schools are vital parts of our communities. They can double as food banks or community spaces, and are perhaps best placed to provide specialised support to youth suffering from the wider effects of Covid-19. The government, with its overwhelming majority, has a duty to account for these intergenerational tensions, and if they are going to foster the community acceptance that the World Health Organisation has said is vital in any long-term strategy, they must show the political will to begin a frank and open dialogue about the differing risks going forward. Some epidemiologist have stated that it is a mistake to drive policy using the basic reproductive rate; rather, the incidence of Covid-19 should be understood in terms of highly structured social networks. If this is the case, it creates the policy space to restrict access to high risk networks, whilst allowing less at-risk groups to continue with their lives and limit the economic, educational, social and personal impacts of the epidemic. Countries around the world must find a balance between protecting those vulnerable for health reasons and protecting those vulnerable for societal reasons. The post-crisis challenge for the government is to widen the national and international debate on how to approach differentiated risks and intergenerational fairness, and to formulate a set of ethical principles that will not leave the nation behind the proverbial curve once again.

Alexander Towne is an MA student at the UCL Institute of Education


Opinions expressed on the CEID Blog are only those of the author, not the Centre for Education and International Development or the UCL Institute of Education.

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One Response to “Blog Series #036: Education in the Time of COVID-19 – Towne”

  • 1
    Roland Salmon wrote on 4 July 2020:

    Combining the estimate of the Independent Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (iSAGE) on the risk of dying, in the UK, in a road traffic accident (0.074/million people/day) with the risk of dying from Covid-19 from the OpenSAFELY Study (Williamson ES et al. OpenSAFELY: factors associated with COVID-19-related hospital deaths in the linked electronic health records of 17 million adult NHS patients. MedXRiv preprint doi: https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.05.06.20092999.) shows that even at the height of the pandemic, the risk of dying in hospital from Covid-19 for someone under forty three years of age was less than that of dying in a road accident.

    Young working adults and young people are, in practice, therefore, showing considerable altruism to protect those older than themselves. This might be believed to be because an unprecedented pandemic demands unprecedented effort. Leaving aside the fact that the Covid-19 pandemic is so unprecedented that Hollywood managed to predict much of it in the film, “Contagion”, as long ago as 2011, the UK Government’s own Coronavirus Action Plan (page 8) https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-action-plan refers to the 1968-1969 H3N2 Hong Kong Flu pandemic that, with the quoted 80,000 excess deaths, mainly in the elderly, was of a similar scale and impact to Covid-19. The whole episode, though, has slipped from popular memory and at the time, no-one thought to shut down the economy. Why not? Certainly the younger generation of that period was energetic politically; the Paris evenements, anti-Vietnam war protests and a host of liberation movements. Political leaders, too, often had first hand memories of the 1930’s mass unemployment and its consequences. If Generation Y/Generation Rent do not want to find themselves, possibly, in the near future, with their own first hand experience of mass unemployment, they should, like Alexander Towne, represent the interests of younger people and children actively in academic blogs, in journals, in letters to the press and more broadly, in the mainstream political debate.

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