Have we really sacrificed our children on the altar of Covid extremism?

This one rule behavior for us is at the heart of all organized discrimination. Whatever your view on wearing masks (whose authors dispute the effectiveness of preventing the spread of Covid), it is unconscionable that if “secondary school children in England have spent months forced to wear masks in their classrooms – up to seven hours a day – neither the vast majority of adults nor the policymakers themselves were prepared to do so. Indeed, on the day in November last year that masks were reintroduced in English schools, Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi was pictured unmasked at a teacher awards ceremony.

Then, the book adds, there was the language used about children who, because of the emphasis on whether they would spread the disease from school to home (as is often the cases with the flu), “paints them as nothing more than walking carriers of the disease”. – a classic trope of stigma and discrimination. He suggests that this intense and reductive scrutiny of children as “vectors” (many of whom elsewhere in nature, he notes, “are blood-sucking insects”) was inherently degrading. “Throughout the pandemic, children have been treated as mere means, with their health, well-being and bodily integrity themselves ‘impaired’ for the protection of adults.”

Together, the authors say, the effect has been a “de facto deprioritization of children’s health, well-being and education” which, like countless historical examples of prejudice, has not only been excused at the time, it was not even considered “in any way regrettable, unethical or to be avoided in the future”.

The final, and perhaps most important, part of the charge of “childishness” comes with the charge that, far from inevitable, it was calculated. “There was always a choice,” suggest the authors. Accordingly, those who make the choice – regardless of the pressure from “activist scientists, the opposition and the trade unions” – must take responsibility for it. “Ultimately, the Conservative government orchestrated a climate of terror [and] exploited events to the detriment of children…” Elsewhere, say Cole and Kingsley, in Sweden, Hungary and some Republican-run US states, children do not have to pay such a high price. Why here?

It’s a wail of sinister intensity, rooted in barely concealed indignation. And any parent remembering the terrible days of homeschooling will be tempted to sympathize. But while it’s cathartic to pinpoint the villains to castigate and heartwarming to suggest they consciously orchestrated a grand scheme of discrimination, the reality is probably a bit more muddled.

On the main indictment that schools should not have been closed, for example, the authors claim: “we could find no verified evidence that the proposed measures would slow the spread of Covid-19, nor no evidence that schools were important drivers of community transmission.” However, others are much more certain: “There is little doubt that during the first wave of school closures had a big impact on the transmission of the epidemic in this country”, noted Paul Hunter, professor medicine at UEA last September. A tracked Covid outbreak in the Netherlands, where children were not expelled from class, showed that schools could indeed sow infection in the wider community. And a careful analysis of Sweden found that minimal precautions there nearly doubled teachers’ risk of being diagnosed with Covid. Their partners were nearly a third more likely to catch it, while parents of school-going children were 17% more likely than those whose children were learning remotely.

So the argument is surely not whether the school closure had an impact on transmission, which it clearly did, but whether that impact was worth the huge price to pay – for learning, safeguarding , physical and mental health and the rest of that misery roll call. For example, a recent article on education in Sweden during the pandemic suggested that there was “no Covid19-related learning loss in reading among Swedish primary school students”; that “the proportion of [Sweden’s] pupils with low reading skills have not increased during the pandemic” and finally that Swedish pupils “from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds have not been particularly affected”. None of this was true in Britain.

Of Sweden’s 39,000 primary school teachers, 79 were hospitalized with Covid between March and June 2020, and one died. Studies suggest that 33 of these 79 severe cases could have been prevented with remote learning. Were these 33 cases, this single death, a price to pay for the continued education of children? Many of us would say “yes”. But maybe we are not the teachers being asked to make this sacrifice. Certainly The Children’s Inquiry reserves much of its anger at unions whose “stance may have been as much about politics and ‘winning’ as about the safety of their members”. And such anger is understandable when news of school closures in January 2021 was greeted by the National Education Union (NEU) with ‘congratulations’ via email to its members. Understandably, Labor hasn’t rushed to question union-pleasing shutdowns. “You would expect some of the voices on the left that would generally stand up for disadvantaged and disadvantaged children to come out and say, wait a minute,” Paul Dolan, professor of behavioral science at LSE, told the authors.

Yet, in the end, even they seem to lose faith in their accusation of Covid-inspired ‘childhood’. It is perhaps understandable. Given that the harms of the pandemic were so widespread, it is difficult to sustain accusations of targeted discrimination. The victims of nursing homes, the silent victims of other deprived conditions of care, ethnic minorities, the poor – the list goes on of those affected as vicious choices and terrible deals have been made on the fly. But as the Covid public inquiry may well make clear, much of what went wrong was more than a calculation.

As it closes, the book begins to devolve into another heated debate, the so-called clash of generations. Covid, it turns out, has only exacerbated a “pre-existing status quo of a [British] “gerontocracy”, structurally biased in favor of older generations”. This, however, is undeniably true. Health spending takes priority over education. People over 65 have moved from the poorest in society to the richest. Meanwhile, 30% of under-17s live in poverty.

But what is also undeniably true is that this is a demographic transition that has taken place over the past 30 years, not the past 30 months. Fixing it won’t be easy. Re-establishing children as a political priority would be a fantastic start – if only to show that “childism” does not exist.

The Children’s Investigation by Liz Cole and Molly Kingsley. To order from Telegraph Books for £9.99 call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

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Edward L. Robinett