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DR MAX PEMBERTON: To hell with Covid! Children MUST go back to school

DR MAX PEMBERTON: To hell with Covid! Children MUST go back to school

This past week has been an emotional roller-coaster ride for A-level and GCSE students.

I have every sympathy with them, caught up in a maelstrom of infighting as politicians, exam regulators and teachers play the blame game over the results fiasco.

But while I don’t doubt the distress caused and their anxiety about their future prospects, this pales into insignificance when compared with the mental health implications of the coronavirus pandemic for hundreds of thousands of younger children.

As ever, it is disadvantaged youngsters suffering most, those who haven’t had access to online lessons or home-schooling for almost six months.

If children don’t go back to school — full time, not part-time — we risk condemning an entire generation to educational oblivion, blighting their life prospects (file photo)

On March 23, their educational and social development was effectively put on hold. For many without the stability of school, there was no structure to their day, and by now they will have lost the habit of learning and the self-discipline demanded by being part of a school community.

And of course they will have suffered fear and anxiety because of what they have heard or read about the pandemic.

Many will be living in chaotic homes without gardens or a park nearby, and have been cooped up for weeks with siblings and parents who find it hard to cope.

At best, their environment will be un-stimulating; at worst, violent or have exposed them to drink and substance abuse.

Dr Gavin Morgan, an educational psychologist and member of the government’s Sage committee, has warned of the devastating impact of limited social interaction on children’s development.

‘We know how important play is for children’s development,’ he said. ‘If they can’t play with their friends, their mental health is going to suffer. Children may have developed secure attachment with their teachers and they have been denied access to these figures.’

A social worker I spoke to this week who has just resumed home visits said some of the children she sees have gone ‘feral’.

Experts who call this a ‘social crisis in the making’ are not underestimating the problem.

Which is why the continued reluctance on the part of some teaching unions to open all schools in September is a disgrace.

Demands about teacher safety and working practices are a smokescreen; this is brazen politicisation of a crisis, in which children very definitely aren’t being put first.

We cannot be complacent, of course, but the health risks are minimal. Children seem to have robust resistance to this strain of the coronavirus — only one previously healthy child has died in England to date. And there are no cases worldwide in which a child has passed the virus to a teacher. 

For many without the stability of school, there was no structure to their day, and by now they will have lost the habit of learning (file photo)

So I say to hell with Covid-19. If children don’t go back to school — full time, not part-time — we risk condemning an entire generation to educational oblivion, blighting their life prospects.

And there is another aspect to this crisis. The summer school holidays are a distant memory for me — but a fond one. I remember endless days of tramping around, exploring with friends, having water fights in the garden and eating strawberries until I felt sick.

Six long weeks of holiday gave us time to play and to be children.

It would take a good few weeks of being back at school before we could shake off that summer feeling and get back into the swing of things in class. Teachers know children return after the summer holiday at an educational level below where they were before the break — a phenomenon termed ‘educational regression’.

My mum, who was a special needs teacher, helped set up a summer school for children so those from disadvantaged backgrounds wouldn’t fall too far behind.

And on the paediatric wards where I’ve worked, we made sure that even very unwell children received regular lessons. We knew missing classes for a few months would have a lasting impact.

Thanks to the pandemic, many children haven’t had a real summer holiday or enjoyed the developmental benefits it brings. Instead, they’ve endured an extension of lockdown (albeit with fewer restrictions over time).

But what they will have experienced is educational regression.

I’ve been impressed by Labour leader Keir Starmer’s insistence on the opening of schools come September whatever teaching unions — traditionally Labour supporting — say.

He recognises — as union leaders choose to ignore — that the gap between rich and poor in educational attainment has widened since March, and we risk losing progress made in social mobility.

If, because of the machinations of the unions, all school-age children are not back in the classroom next month, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson will undoubtedly go and they can claim his scalp.

I couldn’t care less about a minister’s career. But we cannot allow the futures of the poorest children in Britain to be sacrificed on the altar of politics in this way.

Dr Max prescribes… 

A taste of honey 

It’s a kitchen cupboard staple and the go-to home remedy for all sorts of health and beauty ailments. 

But it’s only now that modern medicine is giving honey the respect it deserves. 

Honey is the go-to home remedy for all sorts of health and beauty ailments, but it is now getting the respect it deserves in modern medicine (file photo) 

Research in the British Medical Journal found honey was more effective in treating the symptoms of sore throats, tickly coughs and blocked noses than over-the-counter remedies. My favourite? Shropshire Ling Heather Honey.

Don’t lose NHS veterans again

When retired doctors returned to the frontline to help during the pandemic, I wrote that it was a welcome breath of fresh air on the wards.

And now they’re being urged by colleagues to remain in post to help deal with the Covid-19 backlog — the millions who missed out on treatments because the NHS was focused on the pandemic.

A British Medical Association survey estimates it could take more than a year to clear waiting lists for routine elective procedures.

I desperately hope my older colleagues do stay, but I doubt it. Many left the NHS early because of tax penalties they faced on pensions had they stayed on — through no fault of their own.

We lost their expertise, and the NHS is all the poorer for it. They had something no textbook can teach you: experience. We should hang on to it.

Finding comfort in crazy theories

Why is it that, in a time of crisis, conspiracy theories become so popular? Robbie Williams, the former Take That singer, has appeared in several videos online discussing a bizarre conspiracy theory dubbed ‘Pizzagate’.

It first surfaced in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with claims that a pizza parlour in Washington DC was involved in child sex-trafficking by high-ranking Democrat politicians (which rather reminds me of the claims of a VIP sex ring made by the discredited fantasist ‘Nick’, aka Carl Beech).

Robbie Williams, the former Take That singer, has appeared in several videos online discussing a bizarre conspiracy theory dubbed ‘Pizzagate’

Despite the claims being entirely debunked, Williams seems convinced otherwise.

He’s not alone in the conspiracy theory obsession.

Madonna, the boxer Amir Khan, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and Hollywood actor John Cusack have publicised a range of crazy claims in recent months, including the belief that Covid-19 was caused by 5G phone masts. 

Social psychologists suggest that, rather than making the world seem even more scary, conspiracy theories provide reassurance and, paradoxically, comfort to ‘believers’. They offer an ‘explanation’ and provide a focus for our anger, fear or anxiety.

They help us avoid the harsh reality, which is that life is unpredictable and random — as this pandemic has shown us.

Listen up to tackle dementia

Four in ten cases of dementia could be prevented or delayed by lifestyle changes, a major study has shown — with hearing loss found to be the biggest risk.

Many people are surprised by evidence for the strong link between deafness and dementia. Indeed, doctors still don’t really understand why there is such a clear association.

But given that we know the two are linked and what a burden dementia will continue to be on the NHS and social care — with our ever-expanding ageing population — shouldn’t we be doing more about this?

At the very least, I want to see a public education campaign and greater access to NHS hearing tests.

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