Covid-19 and schools: an open letter to the BBC

Dear BBC,

I am writing to ask you to review the depth of scrutiny in your recent reports on Covid-19 and children in school.

A BBC Breakfast report on 23 June explained that large numbers of children are having to isolate.  A concerned parent spoke about the impact on her child’s education. I was hoping to see some scrutiny about why we are here and what can be done.

I then saw another clip from BBC Breakfast where Dr Rosemary Leonard expressed concern about children missing school. She says, “Let’s stop this, now.”

We can all relate to Dr Leonard’s emotion and her desire for an end to this, but the question is how?

We know that vaccinations are reducing but not breaking the link between prevalence and hospital admissions. This week, Derriford Hospital reported a black alert. So the stretched NHS needs to be factored into the discussion about schools. We cannot simply give up on trying to control the spread of the virus.

Dr Leonard stated that over 80% of adults have antibodies. Did you mention that only 60% of the adult population are fully vaccinated, that there is evidence that the Delta variant has increased vaccine escape, and that cases are rising exponentially?

As I only caught a few minutes of your TV reports, I looked up an article on your website.

Sadly, I did not find deeper scrutiny of the issues here, either.

Your article starts with concerns about mental health and effects on education. You report Dr Michael Absoud calling for an alternative to isolation of contacts. But your report does not say what his alternative plans might be.

The government is trialling the use of lateral flow tests instead of isolation. However, there are many concerns about the reliability of these tests . As the BMJ has reported, the UK Medicines & Healthcare Regulatory Agency (MHRA) has told officials that “the government’s use of rapid lateral flow tests in its mass testing programme risked giving false reassurance to people who tested negative”.

Your article cites un-named “children’s mental health experts” expressing concerns about the impact of children missing school and saying the most vulnerable have been vaccinated.

But imagine a situation where we stopped isolation of contacts whilst prevalence is high. What impact would this have on the mental health of children with existing health conditions and their parents, on children whose family members have poor health, and on children who get ill, some of whom will end up with long Covid?

Maybe as well as “children’s mental health experts” you could talk to more virologists. Professor Christian Drosten is one of many who has been warning that vaccines could be rendered ineffective by a new variant. The perfect conditions for this are high prevalence in a partially vaccinated population. If we went back to square one, it is safe to say that everyone’s mental health would be shattered. The Delta variant already has some vaccine escape, and this should be warning enough.

Your article reports parents on social media expressing anger at children missing life events. You say that one of those parents is a secondary school parent and co-founder of the campaigning organisation Us for Them.

Liz Cole is entitled to her views, and they are likely genuine. However, if you are going to platform Us for Them, audiences should be made aware that this organisation has high-level links to ministers via a PR consultant. Us for Them not only pushes for schools to remain open but also stands for no mitigation measures in schools.

As in your TV report, your article lists numbers isolating. James Neill has calculated that 1 in 100 child cases need hospitalisation. This is quite a roll of the dice, and I suspect many parents would want to see this data and understand it better. James has tried to find out the proportion admitted with Covid compared with because of covid, but this data is not public. Maybe the BBC could find out?

Although you do quote virologist Dr James Tang explaining that children “can get infected and shed virus at even higher viral loads for even longer than adults”, your article then immediately undercuts this by quoting (un-named) health officials saying that “the spread of virus in schools has always been low and there is no evidence schools are causing outbreaks. Instead, they appear to be reflecting levels in the virus in their local communities.”

The article failed to mention that the Delta variant data specific to schools has been suppressed by PHE.

However, the age-specific data from PHE shows that this current wave is being driven by transmission in school-age children, as clearly explained by Professor Chrisina Pagel in this thread

Scientists acknowledge that schools increase transmission, and this was reported to the government in detailed modelling by Warwick University published at the end of April. This modelling clearly shows the R rate increasing  “due to schools reopening”.

We all want children to be secure in their routines, have good education and to experience life events. There is nothing wrong with reporting on expressions of frustration and on the search for alternatives to social isolation for children who are contacts of positive cases. However, doing this without deeper scrutiny can easily shade into dangerous populism.

I would also question why the BBC has placed so little emphasis this week on the government’s decisions. Why was mandatory wearing of masks in schools stopped just as Delta cases were taking off? Why is our test and trace system not working despite £37 billion allocated to it? Why did the government lock down too late and allow cases to rocket three times since March 2020?

An accountable government needs to hear Dr Leonard’s emotive call for this nightmare to stop, so it can be stopped for all of us. After all, children in New Zealand are going to school every day and no teenagers there are upset about missing their prom.

As Ian Mayo points out, government management of public health is key to all of this. Given the BBC’s public service remit, don’t your viewers and listeners have a right to expect a much higher level of scrutiny of this?

Yours sincerely,

Jane Stevenson