ENTERTAINMENT

Give all our young people the opportunity to study again, writes Professor CARL HENEGHAN


The most powerful tool for better health is education. In order to free our country from the sickbed and make it work again, it is crucial that we fully reopen both our schools and our universities.

But that won't happen while millions are scared of going back to normal life. The government urgently needs to send a clear and concise message that the risk of Covid-19 is currently low.

This is evidenced by the death toll. It's important for people to understand that the key figures are the death rate and number of hospital admissions – not the rate of infection.

Only one death from Covid-19 was reported in the UK on Sunday. That's one person out of a population of roughly 66 million. There were two people yesterday – each death was a personal tragedy for the families affected, but statistically a very small number.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University, wants to see all children back in school

About 430 people are currently being treated in intensive care beds because of the novel coronavirus. That's 17,000 at the height of the crisis in April. The golf is huge.

Like so many people, don't be misled by the rise in national infections. 1,715 people across the UK tested positive for Covid-19 on Sunday, the most since early June. It is easy to misinterpret this data and assume that we are in the grip of the dreaded "second wave".

We are not. There is currently no second wave. What we are seeing is a sharp increase in the number of healthy people who carry the virus but show no symptoms. Almost all of them are young. They are discovered because – finally – there is a comprehensive system of national tests and tracings in place.

And while young people may have an infection, they look good, healthy and show no symptoms.

We also need to reassure parents that it is safe for children to return to school this week. School-age students are the least likely to show Covid-19 symptoms, and it is a tragedy when unfounded fears prevent them from returning to education.

We need our children to be smarter than ourselves to ensure we don't repeat the mistakes of our current generation – we need them to be in class.

Rosshall Academy students wear face coverings as it is mandatory on August 31st in corridors and common areas.

Rosshall Academy students wear face coverings as it is mandatory on August 31st in corridors and common areas.

The alarmists will say that such asymptomatic people are just as likely to spread the coronavirus – and maybe even more dangerous because they don't know they have it. This fear is simply not confirmed by the experience of the past six months.

On the contrary, when the whole country was closed, it was the younger people who stayed free from the infection. And while everyone stayed at home, it spread like wildfire in our hospitals and especially in nursing homes for the elderly.

Nursing home cases have now fallen sharply, although we have not yet eliminated the danger. We know that infection rates have increased in young people, but we don't see any subsequent infections in older people.

The evidence is becoming clearer. Young people do not protect older members of society by staying away from school, university and work. But they do terrible long-term harm in another way by maintaining their social isolation.

For anyone who has been seeking refuge since March, the situation seems frightening. Of course, if you haven't set foot in your office in months, you will feel anxious.

And how much worse is that for children and students who haven't seen a classroom or lecture hall since spring. They need reassurance and it is the responsibility of teachers and lecturers to ensure it does.

Boris Johnson wants the reopening of our schools to be the stepping stone into bringing the rest of the UK back to normal

Boris Johnson wants the reopening of our schools to be the stepping stone into bringing the rest of the UK back to normal

This is why I am disappointed with lecturers or university officials who claim they are being put into the line of fire by indifferent ministers. We need to find a compromise that reflects the critical need to get students back into lectures and tutorials.

As a university lecturer, I know the answer has to be pragmatic. We can ensure proper social distancing is maintained by putting some (but nowhere near all) of the work online. Large groups can then be split up and viewed on a staggered schedule. We need to use common sense to get British education going again. If this does not happen, the consequences are catastrophic. Some activists want colleges to stay closed until January, which is ridiculous – everything we know about coronavirus pathogens tells us they are more virulent in winter. We could be in the grip of a real second wave by the New Year.

What happens then? If the spring semester is canceled after a no-show in the fall, students will have to drift for a year. It is hard to imagine that the system could ever fully recover: our top level of education, the envy of the world, will be irreparably damaged.

This is brutally unfair to young people whose lives will be permanently affected. This will also wreak havoc on the country's ability to recover from the pandemic. We need young people with first-class training to restart our economy. Without it we are lost.

Hundreds of thousands of young people have been denied the opportunity to complete the education they have worked on all their lives and they could suffer from the health and wellbeing of young people. A new epidemic, far more insidious and affecting the youngest generation of adults, is about to arrive.

We can all do our part to stop the spread of the infection. We have to be vigilant and flexible. Anyone who has even mild symptoms should get tested and self-isolate until they get their results back. Hand washing and social distancing are still essential.

These precautions have been effective in pubs and restaurants. We need the courage to apply them in the workplace too. There's no reason to fear infections in stores and offices – and fear anything if we can't get them back to normal.

Above all, we have to restart our universities. They are the confidence of the UK brain, an invaluable resource for students and the wider economy. We cannot let them dissolve.

Professor Carl Heneghan is Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford University

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