There are still those, like Matt Hancock, who think that lockdowns were an unalloyed good – who, indeed, believe that in a future pandemic we must lock down harder and faster. But for the rest of us, the appalling toll of Covid lockdowns continues to become apparent.
The Office of National Statistics (ONS) reveals today that the number of people who are economically inactive due to long-term sickness has grown by 400,000 to 2.5 million since 2019. More than half of these people – 1,350,000 – report depression and anxiety as either the primary or secondary cause of their absence from the workplace.
The pandemic has left us with virtually zero economic growth, much of which is blamed on high inflation and rising interest rates. But an important underlying cause too often goes without comment: a sharp rise in economic inactivity.
We cannot grow richer as a country if ever more people are unproductive. Yet the figures for economic inactivity tend to get smothered by the more frequently-reported unemployment statistics. Since the 1990s, these have been based on answers to the Labour Force Survey (an ONS questionnaire) and do not include people on long-term sickness benefits.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Social Justice has published its latest termly tracker of school absence for the autumn term of 2022, showing that school attendance has not even nearly recovered from repeated lockdowns. It reveals that 1.7 million pupils – 24 per cent of the total – missed more than 10 per cent of their lessons. Meanwhile 125,000 pupils missed more than half their lessons. This latter figure has more than doubled since before the pandemic; by contrast it was 60,000 in the same term of 2019.
The implications of all this for society are still fully to be felt. There is a long-established link between school absence and the descent into crime. The rise in school absences suggests that there could be an extra 9,000 young offenders, 2,000 of them violent criminals, by 2027.
Yet where is the outrage over these figures? The scandal of school absences hardly shows up in the news agenda. Disgracefully, the whole issue of missed education was pushed aside by artificially inflated exam grades in 2020 and 2021, when GCSE and A level results were based on teachers’ predictions for their pupils, not on actual exam results. On paper we have a generation which looks extremely well-educated – yet which in reality has huge gaps in its education.
The government’s considered pandemic plan prior to Covid 19 was not to close schools. But, come March 2020, advisers and ministers panicked, dumped the plan and imposed lockdown, closing schools for months on end. We will be living with the consequences for a very long time.