Full School Return Is Now A Test Of Boris Johnson’s Path To Near Normal

Peri-ometer gets milder, but the PM looks impatient with the science.
Boris Johnson joins a socially distanced lesson during a visit to Bovingdon Primary School in Bovingdon, Hemel Hempstead.
Boris Johnson joins a socially distanced lesson during a visit to Bovingdon Primary School in Bovingdon, Hemel Hempstead.
Downing Street

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Arms length decision making

A new phase has dawned, has it not? On the Nando’s coronavirus scale, the UK today finally shifted from hot to medium. We’re not quite at lemon and herb yet, but the move from Level 4 (virus cases ‘rising exponentially’) to Level 3 (virus cases in ‘general circulation’) was undeniably a big moment.

Judging from Boris Johnson’s upbeat media appearances, the shift in official Covid-19 status was the best birthday present he could have had (even better than these cookies he looked slightly underwhelmed by). “I think we are now moving into a different phase as we go forward into the autumn and to the winter,” he said, smiling broadly.

The formal lowering of the alert level also seemed to give him the confidence to go much further than before on the issue of school reopening. Asked if kids could go back five days a week after the summer break, he said that provided classrooms could be made safe, the PM said: “I want every child, every student, every pupil back in September and I’m sure we can get it done.”

That language was a significant notch up from the caution of schools minister Nick Gibb hours earlier, when he said “the clear intention” was to have all children back. The National Education Union pointed out it wasn’t clear how Johnson “simply hoping will be enough in itself to achieve that goal”.‌

But education secretary Gavin Willliamson went even further at his No.10 press conference, changing an intention and a desire into a concrete promise. “We will bring all children, in all year groups, back to school in September,” he said. This was not a slip of the tongue, it was on the script he read out. To make sure we got the message, he repeatedly talked of the “full return” after the summer holidays.

As any fule kno by now, the simplest way to get all children back at the same time is to increase the 15-pupil bubble to a 30-pupil bubble. And Williamson confirmed his plan was centred on “expanding those bubbles to include the whole class”.‌

Reducing the social distancing rule from 2m to 1m would also help teachers hugely to do their daily job, something the PM again hinted was imminent (“watch this space”). Pupils and teachers will literally (though not educationally) have an arms-length relationship, but at least face-time in the classroom will replace the inadequate remote learning that has taken place to date.‌

As well as his “will” pledge, Williamson revealed that the DfE would be issuing fresh guidance in the next two weeks on how schools can prepare for a full return. Given that the 2m rule looks now certain to be reduced within the next fortnight, it all feels like the PM has made his mind up to not just follow his roadmap out of lockdown but possibly even accelerate through it.

When the passenger quarantine rules are formally reviewed on June 29, many expect travel corridors to be put in place too. Add in the expected opening of hairdressers and even some pubs, hotels and restaurants on July 4, plus a possible extension of ‘family bubbles’ to include two-person households, and you can see where this is heading. By the end of this month, Johnson clearly wants us to all have a much sunnier outlook on the future.‌

Of course, the country will need more than the birthday optimism of the PM to get us there. Today, the R number for the virus seemed stubbornly high for the UK as a whole, and even London was close to or at 1. The test and trace figures were still worryingly low this week too.

But as the absence of any medic next to Williamson today told us, the government now seems convinced that these are political as much as scientific decisions (Johnson behaved as if we were at Level 3, long before today). The Johnson and Whitty/Vallance axis now feels like another arms-length relationship in action.

And don’t forget that September is nine weeks away. If the number of cases of Covid-19 continues to fall at its current rate, by then the Alert level could be reduced to that desired lemon-and-herb Level 2 (‘cases and transmission is low’). The PM is clearly hoping we’ll all be ready for a cheeky Nando’s by then. As long as we wash our hands thoroughly.

But there is a big gamble in all this, and not just in health terms. It’s possible that despite all the social distancing changes, UK firms will have been so hard hit by the sheer scale of the pandemic that they still lay off large numbers of workers. Johnson obviously wants the ‘new normal’ to be ‘near normal’ for many of us. If unemployment jumps, life won’t seem normal at all for many.

Quote Of The Day

“We have to start thinking of a world in which we are less apprehensive about this disease.”

Boris Johnson

Friday Cheat Sheet

The UK’s coronavirus alert level has been downgraded from 4 to 3, its chief medical officers have said, a level that allows a “gradual relaxation of restrictions” (which have already started).

The latest daily increase in the number of deaths in the UK from Covid-19 was 173, bringing the total death toll to 42,461.

South Asian people are the most likely to die from coronavirus after being admitted to hospital in Great Britain, a new study has found.

Apple told the Times it did not know the UK was working on a “hybrid” version of the NHS coronavirus contact-tracing app. The firm took the unusual step of saying it was also unaware of an issue regarding distance-measuring, raised by Matt Hancock.‌

Sir Simon McDonald, the most senior civil servant at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is to step down from his role “at the request” of Boris Johnson, ahead of its merger with DfID.

Racist provocateur Katie Hopkins was banned permanently from Twitter.

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