Despite the reproduction rate of coronavirus (R-number) moving above the important 1 mark, the Government has pledged its commitment to the planned restart of schools next week. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has claimed that delaying the restart would threaten the “life chances of a generation”, yet some fear that the re-opening of schools may trigger a second wave of the pandemic.
Independently of whether schools reopen or not, Redfield & Wilton Strategies’ latest poll found that a large majority (69%) of respondents believe there will be a second wave of coronavirus cases in the UK. Only 14% disagree, while 17% said they don’t know. These figures have barely changed since the poll we conducted in early July, just as Leicester became the first city in the UK to return to lockdown.
The public may be concerned by the difficulty governments are experiencing in containing second (or even third) waves of cases in Europe and the rest of the world, and also by Britain’s own rising number of local lockdowns. Scientists’ have warned that cold weather along with the return to schools and universities may reduce the prevalence of social distancing. Moreover, the NHS will also have to cope with annual winter strains, while staff are also under pressure to resume treatments that were suspended during the crisis.
Our previous research has consistently documented a pessimistic outlook in the UK regarding the course of the pandemic. The latest results show little deviation since the imposition of Leicester’s local lockdown. At this stage, a plurality (42%) still feel the worst is yet to come with respects to the timeline of the pandemic. Only slightly more than a third of respondents (35%) think the worst is already behind us.
Although large segments of the population believe the worst is yet to come, fewer expect the pandemic to last longer than another year. Opinion was almost exactly split, with 34% expecting the pandemic to be over this time next year, 33% expecting it to be ongoing, and 33% offering no opinion either way.
Over three-quarters (78%) of parents or guardians of school-aged children intend to send them to school when classrooms reopen next month, up from 69% last week. At this stage, only 11% of parents said that they will not send their children to school, suggesting a sizeable number of children will continue to miss out on traditional education. Notably, 11% of parents with school-aged children remain undecided, which is down from 17% last week. Opinion among parents may have turned after a number of experts expressed their support for the reopening of schools, most notably Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, who argued that “missing school is worse than the virus for children”.
Almost half (49%) of the British public feel comfortable with schools returning full-time at the start of next month, according to our poll last week. The Government has launched a campaign to reassure the public that the risk of harm is low, citing evidence that children are more likely to be injured in an ordinary traffic accident than Covid-19. Indeed, there were only 70 infections out of the more than one million children who were attending schools in June, and it is well-established that even infected children very rarely need to be admitted to hospital.
Parents or guardians of school-aged children were marginally more likely to feel comfortable with the return to school, with 53% feeling comfortable compared to 48% of those without school-aged children.
Nevertheless, a significant minority (32%) of the public do not feel comfortable with the reopening of schools, perhaps as a result of Professor Whitty’s acknowledgement that the restart is likely to create upward pressure on the R-number, given that there will be more frequent interactions between people from different households in enclosed indoor spaces.
A majority (58%) of the public agree with Whitty’s argument that children are more likely to be harmed by not returning to school next month than if they catch coronavirus, while only 16% felt catching coronavirus provided a greater risk of harm. There have been some encouraging signs that schools might not be particularly dangerous hotspots; Sweden’s decision to leave schools open while the rest of Europe went into lockdown saw relatively low levels of transmission at school, with rates of infection among teachers below those of supermarket workers or taxi drivers.
Even so, the reopening of some schools in Britain has already been hampered by coronavirus outbreaks. Soon after reopening in June, new confirmed cases appeared in the classrooms and staff rooms of 30 schools in England. According to our poll, a plurality (46%) believe it would be acceptable if not all schools open for their students in September, while 40% do not.
Notably, 64% of parents believe it would be acceptable for certain schools to remain closed, while 38% of the rest of the public hold this view.
The public’s mostly accepting attitude towards a delay is in part explained by the fact that almost a third (32%) of respondents claim no one would be to blame if schools are unable to reopen safely and at full capacity in September. However, a similar proportion (33%) believe the Government would be most at fault, while 19% say teachers’ unions would be most to blame. Blame appears to be gradually shifting away from teachers’ unions and towards the Government: our poll last month found that the public felt unions were more at fault than the Government.
Professor Whitty warned last month that the country has “probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”. The reopening of schools in addition to the activities that have already resumed may take the nation beyond the limit, leading to suggestions of reintroducing restrictions on other sectors of society, such as pubs, in order to allow schools to reopen. A clear majority (60%) would support the closure of pubs to enable schools to open in September, according to our poll last week.
The Government has announced that from September, school attendance will be mandatory. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has also stated that fines will be issued to enforce the return of pupils to schools, which may be a factor in parents increasingly committing to sending their children to school. At this stage, a majority (56%) agree with the Government’s decision to make school attendance mandatory when schools return in September. Such a high level of support for mandatory attendance may be explained by the public’s concern for children’s mental and physical health, as well as their recognition that some parents need to return to workplaces and pass on daytime care of their children to schools.
Significantly, a majority (57%) of parents and guardians supporting the decision to make attendance mandatory. On the whole, parents and guardians of school-aged children rarely deviated from the viewpoints expressed by the wider general public, besides holding the Government more responsible and offering more optimistic views about when life will return to normal.
Overall, our results suggest that, while the public appreciates the scale of the crisis and would regard a delay to the reopening of schools as acceptable, they are also supportive of efforts to avoid a delay if at all possible, even if other industries are forced to shut. Notably, the public even supports the Government enforcing school attendance.