What does “Failures of State” say about the start of the 2020-21 academic year?

Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott’s first draft of Covid-19 history is a powerful and affecting read.

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

The revelations that medical staff were encouraged to make clinical decisions that left many to die without the interventions that would save them, the almost total abandonment of nursing and care homes, and the continued lack of PPE through the second (and third) waves of the virus will stay with me for a long time. As will the cowardice and failures of leadership that led to delayed restrictions and thousands of avoidable deaths.

It is not, as I think is clear, an easy or comforting book – but you should absolutely read it and reflect on it.

Late summer and early autumn

On this level, the impact on higher education feels very much a secondary concern. It was an avoidable tragedy in a year full of them, but in terms of magnitude and impact it is dwarfed by the revelations elsewhere.

In Calvert and Arbuthnott’s telling, the second wave in England started as far back as Super Saturday. When the pubs opened on 4 July the number of cases in the UK were at their lowest point. The return of shopping, travel to work, schools, and finally pubs – even with anti-Covid measures in place, meant that cases rose slowly and insidiously from that date on. “Eat out to help out”, running from 3 to 31 August, was a major contributory factor in the acceleration of case number growth at the end of the summer and in early autumn.

By the time schools returned at the start of September, and students began to contemplate the return to campus, a large second wave was clearly on the way. The reproduction rate (R) was at 1.7 between 22 August and 7 September and, as authors note, “a second lockdown was inevitable… the only question was when”. Track and trace was all but overwhelmed, and by 9 September Spi-M (the government’s modelling committee) were warning that we were moving back into exponential growth. By 18 September, a two-week lockdown was recommended and discussed, with Rishi Sunak a key figure in the decision not to go ahead.

The accelerator

At the time, we all saw the start of term as a terrible idea. Students travelling across the country to study had the potential to speed the transmission of the virus – the book notes Jo Grady’s point that it could lead to “universities being the care homes of any second wave of Covid”, and that at least two Spi-M committee members were arguing against the return of students to universities.

However, what’s not clear is that by this point the decision was very much out of the government’s hands. We’d seen the refusal of a meaningful bailout for higher education back in mid-July, meaning that term (of some sort) had to go ahead for many universities to be able to keep paying their staff. We’d seen an overheated application period at the end of August, which saw the abandonment of recruitment restrictions that were in place to avoid overcrowding at one end of the market and a collapse in demand at the other. And we’d seen warnings from the OfS about consumer rights – making it clear that most providers would need to offer some kind of on-campus provision.

As it happens, we were inordinately lucky that the outbreaks in halls of residence across the UK were the worst that happened – and we should be publicly thanking students for their good sense and providers for some good decisions (alongside, to be clear, some crashingly bad ones). Calvert and Arbuthnott list some of the providers and cities that experienced those terrifying outbreaks in mid-September and early October.

The fact that there has been no conclusive evidence of a spread between students and the wider population, either from serotype analysis or statistical modelling, is not mentioned. Likewise the almost total lack of confirmed outbreaks from teaching or organised social activities. Something in the wide range of interventions thrown at the issue by SUs, providers, local public health teams, and the national governments clearly worked in terms of stopping a potentially catastrophic wider spread of the virus.

New light through old windows

The defining image of the sector during the pandemic isn’t the hand sanitizer outside of the teaching room or the perspex panels between desks. It is the windows of halls of residence – bleak, dark, humour spelled out on posters and in post-its. The covered windows concealed scared, lonely, students – trapped in rooms designed only to sleep in, watching seminars on Microsoft Teams and waiting for food deliveries of uncertain timing and quality. The book quotes a few of the window messages: “Locked up – thanks Boris”, “£9k well spent”, “Send drink”. There are many others.

In years to come this cohort of first year students should look back with pride at what they achieved. Despite expectations that student ill-behavior would drive infection, they did the right thing. They suffered through privations that they should not have been subjected to – they were on campus because of a government reluctance to make difficult public health decision, a political imperative to see universities as the enemy in an idiotic culture war.

Students did not ask for this role, or this fight. They believed what they were told by a government who knew what the science was pointing to and ignored it. And they copped a lot of the blame for bad decisions earlier in the summer by a cabinet keener to revert to pointless libertarian instincts than to keep the UK safe.

“Failures of State” is very much the first, shocking, draft of the UK’s shameful coronavirus history. There will be more to follow, and an independent public inquiry into every aspect of the pandemic and the government’s response to it should be central to the way understanding developed. The higher education sector will play a part – the engines of innovation that tracked and modelled the course of Covid-19 and developed tests, treatments, and vaccines. But the part played by students – and what they suffered in the wider interests of the public while our government refused to act – should not be forgotten.

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