by Dr. Sinead Murphy
Yesterday, Friday, was my darkest Covid hour. But then there dawned a light: Covid is this year’s panto. It’s just that the children aren’t laughing.
First, the darkest hour:
I was called to collect my younger boy from school; he, along with the rest of his class, is sent home for two weeks on account of one of his teaching assistants having tested positive for COVID-19.
It is an old story at this late stage of our Covid year. But this version of the story has a twist. My younger son, who is six years old, is autistic. He cannot answer the question “What is your name?”; he does not understand the concepts of ‘Why’, ‘Where,’ ‘Who’ or ‘How’; he has no grasp of the past tense and only a tenuous one of the future.
Anyone will tell you that the most important ‘treatment’ for autism is the establishing and maintaining of a routine. Not because it makes autistic children more comfortable – it is more serious than that. A stable routine is their only chance of understanding the world and operating in it.
Imagine you’re having a difficult conversation on the phone. Then one of your children starts asking you where their black football top is. Then the oven timer goes off. Then the doorbell sounds. All at the same time. You can hardly think straight. That is life for those with autism; the routines that keep things in their rightful times and spaces are what make such a life bearable.
In this context, the wholesale suspension of routines at the end of March this year was a blow, to my son and to many others like him. Those who died without friends in the care homes, for their own protection, had their counterparts on the outside, who lived without supports in their own homes and struggled to get any bearing in the sudden limbo that was imposed on us all… for our own protection, of course.
Suicide numbers have been difficult to come by for the months of lockdown. But it was reported in July this year, that five children with special needs in the county of Kent, including with diagnoses of autism, had killed themselves during the previous three months. A further two had made serious attempts, resulting in life-changing injuries. The usual suicide rate for children in Kent is two or three every year.
Routine is not about making young people with autism comfortable. It is about keeping them afloat. It is sometimes life or death.
During the first three weeks of the first lockdown, Joseph started picking at the skin on his hands and arms, making sores that he would not leave alone without being constantly told to do so. Joseph is six. What would he have done had he been 16? As a parent, you can hardly think of it. But you must.
All of that was unacceptable then. It is execrable now. Now that we know, according to Government statistics, that children are almost wholly unaffected by this virus and are more likely to die of having been struck by a lightning bolt or, indeed, by suicide. Now that we know, according to a study produced by the WHO, that there has been no recorded case in the world of a child at school transmitting this virus to an adult working there. Now that we know how inflated are the Covid ‘positives’ identified by the PCR test. Now that we know that never in the history of humankind has something been called an ‘infection’ that is accompanied by no symptom of anything at all.
Now that we know this, to send home a class of healthy six year olds because one of the adults who has been in their midst is PCR positive is outrageous and a reneging of care that belies all of the myriad mission statements made by our ever-reforming education system during the last 50 years of its race to the bottom.
But to send home a six year-old with autism, who has been fitted into the school system with considerable difficulty and after much effort, who has already once been banished from it without warning and already once made a heroic return – this beggars belief.
When I collected Joseph, among all the other parents joking and joshing about how hard it was going to be to keep their little ones entertained at home, I asked to speak to someone who could give me clarity on the decision that had been made. I was met by the acting Head; the real Head is about to retire to do consultancy work. He came to see me in the vestibule, which is as far as anyone is allowed to advance into the school. Our conversation was conducted as the other children in Joseph’s class were ushered past towards the parent next in line to receive.
In situations such as these, when one knows that there is no chance that one can effect any change, it can be difficult to marshal the forces of argument. Possible success is a good focuser of the mind. But I was helped in my hopeless mission by a question that I have read many times on Lockdown Sceptics, to do with rules on mask wearing in schools: Where is the risk assessment?
Where is the risk assessment, I asked, that has weighed the negligible risk of Joseph’s suffering symptoms of Covid and passing on the virus to someone else, against the certainty that Joseph will experience distress at this second sudden cessation of his routines and the high risk of his dealing with this distress by causing physical harm to himself?
No such risk assessment had been done, I was told by the acting Head. His hands were tied. He had to follow policy.
Had he raised Joseph’s situation as a concern, as something to be considered?
No. The policy had to be followed, he said.
Did he know that the Government’s own figures show that children are non-sufferers from Covid? Did he know that the WHO has not recorded one case of the virus being transferred from a child to an adult in a school setting? Did the prioritising of non-risk over actual and proven risk not strike him as relevant to his decision?
No, he replied. The school had to follow the policy of Public Health England.
As I stood across from the acting Head in the vestibule of his school – looking, with his visor, like a poorly-costumed afterthought in the school play – it occurred to me how degraded we have become. That one who ought to be a leader in the community – the Head of a primary school of 630 children – should openly admit that the rationality or otherwise of his decisions on behalf of the children in his school was irrelevant when confronted with recently invented and constantly changing guidelines from the state. That the welfare of all the children – not to mention Joseph, with his additional challenges – was not even to be considered, let alone fought for.
What struck me too was the difference in our demeanour. Notwithstanding his ludicrous visor, his comportment was one of (slightly ruffled) calm; he listened and said little. My comportment, by contrast, was one of heated conviction. And yet, it was he who was selling lunacy that defies all facts, and I who was arguing for reason based on evidence. These are times when lunacy is so deeply institutionalised that it can appear calm, and reason so embattled that it has to act crazy.
When I repeated my question to the acting Head, asking him to respond to the negligible risk to children and the zero cases of child-to-teacher transmission, his response was “I am not a scientist”. Well, I am not a scientist either. But Mike Yeadon is. And Sunetra Gupta is. And John Lee is. And Carl Heneghan is. And those who generate statistics at the ONS and the WHO are. Not only this, these scientists produce comprehensible sentences, which can be read and understood. What is the good of being able to read and understand them if their contents are deemed not for me because I am not a scientist? What a truncation, of the Head of a school, that he cannot form a judgement on the basis of reading analyses written for non-experts by experts, but can only play the role assigned to him by the policy. An acting Head reduced to reading from the script.
And that is when the light dawned on my darkest hour.
The Government so often tells us that it is following ‘The Science’ and yet it has remained unmoved by the scientific contributions of scientists – including Sunetra Gupta and Carl Heneghan – who we know have actually been given audiences with the Prime Minister and explained to him their findings. Because the truth is, the Government is not following ‘The Science’ but The Scientists – Ferguson, Whitty, Vallance, Van Tam – and their influence derives not from the quality of their scientific researches but from the role they have been assigned in what is ever more ridiculously revealed as the Covid pantomime. Sunetra Gupta may be a scientist, but she is not one of The Scientists, as cast – she is not one of the acting Scientists. So she gets no lines to say.
This, I think, explains a lot. It explains why the ever-louder outcry – even from the mainstream press – against irrational measures (the second lockdown has been widely descried as nonsensical) produces no effect but the doubling down on those measures. Our criticisms are nothing more than an “Oh no you don’t!” to the “Oh yes we do!” of the actors on stage.
It explains too what appears as shocking incompetence among government representatives, who fail to be consistent in their accounts of measures and advice, contradicting each other on the most serious of issues. Recently, Van Tam – one of the acting Scientists – delivered a line on the need to wear masks into the distant future that was immediately contradicted by Boris Johnson – the acting Prime Minister. Actors often don’t bother to learn their lines…
Which also explains Matt Hancock’s star turn this week as he announced, with tears so crocodile that they never actually appeared, the death from Covid of his step-grandfather, or was it the step-father of his step-sister, or was it the father of the second husband of his step-mother? Even Hancock – the acting Health Secretary – couldn’t be bothered to find out. The leading men never pay too much attention to the extras.
And it explains the drama now playing out around the vaccine – which is, according to non-acting scientists like Mike Yeadon and Sucharit Bakhti, only an acting vaccine, not even pretending to offer immunity to Covid and only possibly reducing symptoms of the disease and, by necessity, never going to reach statistically relevant proof of effectiveness for those under 70 years of age.
As in any good panto, The Vaccine has been the conceit that has tied together the carelessly assembled elements of the Covid plot, and, as in any good panto, its final arrival onstage is to great, hyperbolic, utterly childish eclat. Unmarked lorries, their progress through the channel charted in the media as it charts the journey of Santa’s sleigh on Christmas Eve. A secret location for its storage. And a cast of hams, ready to have it injected live on air – the acting Prime Minister, the acting Health Secretary, and the acting Journalist Piers Morgan, among those poised to do a turn for the camera. Will the syringe used be just that bit bigger – an acting Syringe? Will the nurse who administers be just that bit more caring – an acting Nurse?
And as the comics keep up their antics for those who still need a laugh – Michael Gove disputing the issue of numbers of scotch eggs that constitute a meal: Gavin Williamson saying ‘Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah’ to the not-as-good countries of Europe – will we allow ourselves to be carried away by this last act in the show?
I hope not. For, though we are constantly harassed to keep playing our part, all the world is not a stage. As we walked away from school on Friday, Joseph had his fingers crossed. On both hands. A small pressure, to ease anxiety. Not a good sign.
The show might go on, but very few of our children are having fun.
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Philosophy Lecturer at Newcastle University