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How much of a difference did school closures make to spread of COVID and impact on NHS? | Science & Tech News

The latest dump of WhatsApp messages between ex-health secretary Matt Hancock and former education secretary Sir Gavin Williamson might be shocking in what they reveal about the men’s attitudes to teachers.

But what isn’t surprising, or even that revelatory, is that there was a long-running spat about the benefits of closing schools to control the spread of COVID-19.

For many decisions, the science was abundantly clear.

Politics live: Outrage over minister’s ‘snide’ WhatsApp messages about teachers

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Hancock rejects COVID test claims

Take lockdowns: in the absence of vaccines, and the speed at which COVID was spreading to the over-65s and other vulnerable groups, the March 2020 and January 2021 national lockdowns were the real only option available to ministers.

And here they “followed the science”.

But when it came to children, especially in the school setting, things were always going to be more nuanced.

As early as March 2020, scientists on the government’s SAGE advisory group explained that the risk of COVID to healthy children was low.

They also advised the government on the negative impacts, loss of education, social interaction, and pressure on parents, of taking children out of school.

But they also predicted, correctly as it turns out, that children – particularly those of secondary school age – were as susceptible as adults to infection with COVID and onward transmission of the virus.

This led them to conclude, and continue to advise throughout the early part of the pandemic, that school closures would reduce the R number of COVID – the speed of its spread.

Read More:
Explosive messages lay bare political handling of the pandemic
The key exchanges
‘I broke NDA, but it wasn’t personal’

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Alleged comments are ‘pretty squalid’

But with science advice being more equivocal, the ball was in the ministers’ court when it came to coming up with a policy decision.

They could still be “guided by the science” – but the science wasn’t going to make their minds up for them.

Only selected WhatsApp messages have been published in The Daily Telegraph. We can’t rely on them to give us a balanced view of whether ministers got it right.

And when it comes to school closures even the public inquiry might struggle to conclude what the best course of action could have been.

School closures weren’t carried out in a systematic way.

They happened at times when the rest of society was either in lockdown or under another form of restriction. And opportunities like the autumn 2020 “circuit breaker” advised by many SAGE scientists were rejected by ministers.

Only half of the equation

This makes it very difficult for scientists to quantify what difference school closures made to the spread of the virus and the impact on the NHS.

Without that half of the equation, it’s impossible to know if closing schools to slow the virus outweighed the impact it had on the lives and learning of millions of children.

Pub trade warns of 2,000 closures without budget aid | Business News

A further 2,000 pubs are at risk of closure, threatening 25,000 jobs, unless the chancellor comes to the sector’s aid in this month’s budget, according to an industry body.

The British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) cited research by Oxford Economics which forecast 288 million fewer pints would be sold in the next financial year as the cost of living crisis facing punters combines with the cost of doing business crisis.

Sales volumes have already slipped as the squeeze on household budgets forces more people to drink and eat at home.

The BBPA told Sky News that 450 sites closed last year alone as energy-driven inflation accelerated, despite government support.

It builds on a significant decline since 2000, with a quarter of pubs – 13,000 – being lost.

The BBPA used a submission to chancellor Jeremy Hunt, in advance of his budget on 15 March, to declare that financial support for publicans, breweries and staff training to retain workers were vital, arguing that the pub is at the core of British society.

It pointed to rising energy, food and employment bills among the reasons why costs are unsustainable.

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Farmers plead for government aid

“With cost pressures and slowing consumer spend, combined with a further duty increase in August, there are significant fears of widespread closures, with a worrying 2,000 pubs estimated to be at risk,” its statement said.

“And with the current Energy Bill Relief Scheme support ending on 31st of March, many pubs and breweries will again be subject to rocketing bills that threaten them to declare last orders once and for all.”

It said that one pound in every three spent in pubs currently made its way to the Treasury.

The BBPA’s wishlist included a freeze to duty rates and a “significant increase” in the discount for draft beer sold in pubs.

Publican Emma Shepherd, who runs the Blue Ball Inn in Worrall near Sheffield with her husband, has campaigned for more financial aid for the hospitality sector.

She described how soaring energy prices had already forced the closure of its kitchen on two days per week despite government support for energy costs.

The Blue Ball Inn belongs to Admiral Taverns and is run by Emma and Carl Shepherd. Pic: Blue Ball Inn
The Blue Ball Inn belongs to Admiral Taverns and is run by Emma and Carl Shepherd. Pic: Blue Ball Inn

She warned that the prospect of any easing from April could mean they have to let staff go and shut the kitchen.

“We’re in a perfect storm… working harder for less,” she explained, describing how beer, food and local regulations had added to their expenses.

“20% VAT on everything is a huge cost to small businesses that are working on small margins and the margins are getting smaller,” she said.

“The government hailed a reduction for beer tax but we don’t see a reduction at our end because the beer producers are facing the same energy costs as we are.”

Emma McClarkin, the chief executive of the BBPA, said pubs in rural areas were at particular risk, leaving more communities facing the prospect of being without a local.

“This really is a make or break moment for our pubs and our brewers,” she said.

“With everything that’s hitting them at the moment post pandemic, recovery has been really, really difficult and with cost inflation biting, labour shortages as well as those high energy costs, we’re really struggling to find our feet again as an industry… without that intervention (from the government) we could lose 2,000 pubs and 25,000 jobs.”