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Latest 03 September 2021

We won’t allow children’s health to be sacrificed on the altar of politics

On 19 August, Dr Jenny Harries wrote to families to say that children the Government had once classed as especially vulnerable to Covid were no longer considered vulnerable. The letter said that they must attend school, despite the absence of adequate, or indeed in many cases any, protections for them. This is the same Dr Jenny Harries who had previously claimed that face masks could “actually trap the virus” and cause the person wearing it to breathe it in and that, “for the average member of the public walking down a street, it is not a good idea” to wear a face mask. 

Schools might now be the least safe institution in the country. Alone, we believe, they do no contact tracing. Face mask use is discouraged. And the Government’s own expert advisors, SAGE, consider it “highly likely” that there will be “exponential increases” of Covid in school-age children when schools reopen. The world’s largest study has also found that one in seven children who get Covid will suffer long Covid. 

These are the facts. They pose serious questions for every family in the country with school-age children. But the consequences are especially severe for families with vulnerable members. The Government’s stance means those families – who have legitimate serious and elevated health concerns around contracting Covid – face an impossible choice. 

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The Government’s position is that if these children don’t attend school, parents can or should be fined or prosecuted (which for some parents could be career-ending). And schools or local authorities, worried about attendance figures, can and do bully vulnerable families into deregistering children. This hurts children who want an education, but has the ugly advantage for school or local authority of shifting the problem onto someone else’s plate. And the only way out for families is to risk the health of their children.

We don’t think this state of affairs is lawful – and it is certainly not right.

Good Law Project has commissioned written legal advice from leading educational specialists Fiona Scolding QC and Yaaser Vanderman. That advice should be read by every family, every headteacher, and every local authority.

The advice says, in summary:  

  1. Fines or prosecutions for not attending school could – depending on the facts – be unlawful; and
  2. Vulnerable children or children who belong to vulnerable families may have a legal right to be provided with an education at home.

We will email this advice to everyone on our mailing list on Monday 6 September. If you’d like to sign up, click here. 

This advice is all well and good, but the real question is: how can families enforce these rights? 

What we plan to do is write to Gavin Williamson, the Minister, asking him to issue guidance that protects vulnerable children and families. We will make the same request of a sample of local authorities, and of a sample of schools. If he will not, or they will not, we expect to begin court proceedings against them for those failures. 

In the meantime, working in conjunction with groups set up to look after families, we will look for test cases to litigate the advice above. We will conduct those test cases, as we always do, in a way that maximises transparency. On Monday, we will set up a crowdfunding page to fund the costs. 

We have no magic wand that can make the problems go away. The transition to a world which has Covid in it is complex and will take time and thoughtfulness. During that transition, Government, local authorities and schools should show sensitivity to the decisions that families, supported by the medical evidence, arrive at as to what is in the interests of their children and any other vulnerable family members.

What cannot happen – but what Government seems determined to insist should happen – is that we pretend we live in a world without Covid. 

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