Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP writes for The Telegraph.
As someone who had supported the Government’s desire to get primary schoolchildren back in the classroom as soon as possible, I was dismayed to hear that we were dropping that vital requirement.
We seem to have caved in to the teaching unions, who claim that opening the schools would increase the level of risk. Yet at the same time, scientists at Cambridge University have made it clear that the risk of children under the age of 15 falling ill from Covid-19 is less than being struck by lightning. Sadly, the Government hasn’t grasped that there is a debate to be had about balancing risk with reward. The decision not to reopen schools in full before summer will have raised the level of risk for too many children in difficult domestic situations while damaging the ability of schools to shape their futures in positive ways. How ridiculous when, as the WHO has made clear, there is no record of schools once open increasing the infection rate.
My wider concern is that, as we approach the re-opening of the economy, without tackling the gap between real and perceived risk, this process of unlocking will not succeed. As long as people believe it is all too dangerous, they will vote by not moving their feet and the Government will face further setbacks. Today it is schools, tomorrow it will be the sound of businesses collapsing as they decide that there is no way they can operate under the existing strictures.
There needs to be a strategic plan about how we maximise the opportunity of unlocking balanced against real, not perceived, risks. Too often one policy seems to counter the other. The travel quarantine runs counter to getting the airlines up and running. Now we hear that the Government wants to open air bridges to mitigate that policy’s damaging effect, but why didn’t we start that before?
All roads lead to Rome, as the saying goes, and in this case it is true. This is because the most significant problem in enabling the schools to operate, for the hospitality trade to function at a decent capacity, for public transport to work effectively and for supermarkets to cut the debilitating time spent in queues, comes down to one vital strategic decision. It is that unless we want unlocking to be no more than a cosmetic exercise in virtue signalling, we have to change the social-distancing requirement from two metres to one metre as the WHO advises.
It is clear that we must change it. Let’s take the hospitality sector. Before Covid-19 broke out, it was set to create 500,000 more jobs. It’s already the third largest employer, generating 5 per cent of GDP and is twice as big as the financial services sector. Yet the pubs, restaurants and cafes won’t succeed if the rule is still two metres and it is estimated only one third will be able to open if it remains in place.
The same problem exists for public transport. At present on tubes, buses and trains, they are incredibly limited. Yet moving to one metre would hugely increase potential capacity and help get people to work.
Against all that potential for restoring our economic fortunes, the risk is slight. The risk of catching Covid at a distance of one meter as opposed to two metres is 2.6 per cent versus 1.3 per cent – tiny. Also, as face masks cut airborne transmission, the risk can be further reduced.
If businesses can’t get going, schools find it too tough to open and public transport runs nearly empty of passengers, the consequences will be shattering. Companies will go bust, millions will become unemployed – suffering worse health conditions as a result – and our borrowing will soar. All this will happen if we hamstring our economy because some scientists say that changing the two-metre rule might confuse people.
The Government must now lead the debate and get Britain working, for the sake of our health and wellbeing, every bit as much as our economic needs. If it wants to do that, it must cut the two-metre rule and do it now.