It seems like only yesterday that I was writing in this column about the need to ‘stay at home’ at the height of the pandemic. That was around Easter, as lockdown became all embracing, and even a vague sense of ‘normality’ returning seemed very distant indeed. I am bound to say that we must stay alert to the possibility of new outbreaks, with infection falling sharply but still present, and far from eradicated. Nevertheless, I do feel that the first tentative signs of a broader reopening of society really are starting to take hold, with all that entails.
A key moment occurred this Monday, as non-essential retail businesses reopened for the first time since lockdown. Like the Chancellor and Prime Minister I took the earliest opportunity to visit local businesses that were reopening and to see at first hand the steps being taken to do so safely. At the Rug and Carpet Store in Long Melford I saw how the front door bears the ‘Covid secure’ certificate; signs on the floor remind one to keep 2m apart; hand gel is plentiful, and the counter is behind a protective screen. If we can shop in supermarkets, we can now get out and support our smaller shops, so important not just to the local economy but also to our sense of community.
Personally, the most significant feeling of the tide turning away from lockdown was when I took three of my four children on the school run for the first time in weeks. I dropped them at their primary school and saw for myself the changes being implemented to follow public health guidelines in the unique environment of classrooms. I have also joined others in returning physically to work after two months in the home office environment, and have enjoyed being back in Westminster for most of each week since 1st June, even though we’ve also had to adapt our workplace.
This said, I am conscious that many will not have had much experience yet of getting more fully out and about. This applies to those who have been shielding, or are more vulnerable, and to those continuing to work from home as encouraged. In particular, I know from my own inbox that many other parents will not have been as fortunate as I in having been able to send their children back to school, albeit that one of mine is in a year not yet fully returned.
I shared entirely the sentiment of one parent’s email that I received, so grateful their children had been able to go back, and so struck by the positive impact on their wellbeing, especially as they were able to see some of their friends again. That is been exactly the experience for my children and their school friends, and therefore it was with a huge sense of frustration that I learned of the difficulties we would face in ensuring that more years were able to fully return (bearing in mind all schools have been open to children of keyworkers throughout lockdown).
Whilst many headteachers and their staff have done everything possible to reopen, in significant parts of the education sector I am afraid we have encountered the complete opposite of the ‘can do’ attitude necessary for all school years to return. It is a matter of deep personal regret to me that many children will not see school again this side of September and we must do everything possible to maximise the number returning, for it is in their best interests. If the young can attend zoos and Primark, they can be in the classroom too.