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Was there a bigger pandemic lie than “schools are safe”?

A caveat, first up, if you’re hyperventilating about the headline: “Safe” is a relative term. The fact of the matter is that all the science and evidence suggests that covid 19 poses little to no threat to school age children. The truth is that schools are, and always have been, safe, at least for children. But that, of course, is not what “schools are safe” actually meant.

“Schools are safe” meant, and was intended to mean, that Covid 19 did not transmit much, and could not circulate, as a result of schools being open.

That was a very important line for Government, and its advisors, to take. Politically, having schools open was vital. Few parts of lockdown were more unpopular than the closing of schools, and online learning. Keeping them open during some of the prior covid waves meant it was necessary to reassure the covid hyper cautious that schools were not contributing to the dreaded daily case numbers.

In all of this, of course, concerns for the health of teachers – even deeply at risk, immunocompromised teachers – were, at least in the public mind, largely secondary.

The problem is that as lines go, it has never – not even from day one – made any sense. It’s just another one of those slogans that we learn by rote in Ireland, and repeat ad nauseum, because it suits us to believe it. Look at these figures:

Thousands of primary pupils and teachers are out sick with Covid every day, as infection levels soar.

In the first two weeks of this month, a minimum of 3,726 pupils and 605 teachers tested positive – and that was only in a survey of about a quarter of primary schools.

A gloomy snapshot of infection levels, teacher absences and the extent of the substitution crisis in the primary sector has emerged in an Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) survey.

Some people, of course, will dismiss those figures on the basis that they come from the INTO, and, for some reason, there is no more irrationally hated group in Ireland than Teacher’s Unions. But nobody can, or has, credibly disputed those figures.

Which leaves you wondering: How can those figures be reconciled, in any way, with repeated assurances for two years from Government, and NPHET alike, that “schools are safe”? The only rational conclusion is that it was, and is, bull.

The other reaction will be to claim that schools were safe, but then, the removal of contact tracing magically made them unsafe. Whether this is true or not can neither be proved, nor disproved (many teachers complained, for example, that “contact tracing” had a funny tendency to claim that six sick children in one classroom all picked Covid up outside the school, rather than inside it) but it does tend to reinforce the point that Government, not the public, is to blame for the current case surge.

It should also make us look rather more sceptically at what the Government claims. In Ireland, we have an unfortunate habit of picking up mantras, and repeating them endlessly, just because they suit the establishment narrative at the time. For example: The same people who bored us all to death with “schools are safe” are largely the same people who can now be found endlessly bleating about “the pandemic of the unvaccinated”, even though the evidence for that, when you look at it, is every bit as thin.

The evidence would tend to suggest that “schools are safe” was always nonsense. If they were safe, after all, schools would never have been closed when they were, for as long as they were. The phrase was developed solely and only to make people feel safer about re-opening them.

This habit of dodgy mantras becoming uncontested fact is a feature of Irish public life. You can find them almost everywhere: The meaningless phrase “Ireland at the heart of Europe”, for example, is factually impossible, and provides almost no insight into what our relationship with Europe should, or could, be. It’s just one of those things that makes people in South Dublin feel better about not being British.

“A Just Transition”, when talking about climate change, is another. Nobody knows what it means. But it makes people feel better, even as they inflict brutal carbon taxes on poor people who are trying to heat their homes. Just indeed.

On, and on, it goes. “Schools are safe” was, and is, nonsensical. The present data shows that definitively. But in Ireland, we bleated it out as if it were a response to the prayers of the faithful, and almost no dissent on the subject was countenanced.

That’s how we do things, here. And then, when it turns out we were wrong, we forget all about it, and pretend it never happened.

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