Families home schooling sick kids to protect them face prosecution in ‘bonkers’ rule

Getting ‘back to normal’ has left millions of clinically vulnerable people behind but, rather than recognising the dilemma faced by vulnerable families, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has doubled down on the Tory Government’s position

Charlie Morris pictured with his children Finley, 11 (red top), Toby, 10 (blue top) and Phobe, 7 pictured at their home in Whitchurch, Bristol. The children are currently not in school due to concerns over covid and Toby’s type 1 diabetes condition.
The Morris family in Somerset – Charlie Morris with children Finley, 11 (red top), Toby, 10 (blue top) and Phoebe, 7 at their home in Whitchurch, Bristol

Sarah Brooks has chronic ­rheumatoid arthritis. Like many people on immunosuppressant drugs, she is double-vaccinated but hasn’t developed any ­antibodies to Covid-19.

Her four-year-old daughter, Ella, has a rare type of epilepsy that can be ­triggered by a virus or a fever.

With Covid rates rising, and the new Omicron variant gaining ground, Mrs Brooks has taken the decision to home school her three children. But – under current government rules – now faces being fined.

“We were invited for a meeting with the attendance officer and were told we face fines and/or prosecution,” says Mrs Brooks (we have changed names to protect her daughter). “On the same day we got a letter saying that the school itself was at the centre of a Covid outbreak. It’s bonkers.”

The family have now got in touch with the Good Law Project, who have sent a pre-action letter to the local council challenging the decision to enforce attendance.

Getting “back to normal” has left millions of clinically vulnerable people behind. At one time 3.7million were official “shielders”. One in four of them have never stopped according to ONS figures. Now they are just people who can’t go out, but have no extra support.

Last week, the number of pupils absent from school in England because of Covid rose by about 60%. Some 208,000 state-school pupils were absent with confirmed or suspected cases on November 25.

Britain’s Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has doubled down on the Tory Government’s ‘bonkers’ position


AFP via Getty Images)

Rather than recognising the dilemma faced by vulnerable families, the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, has doubled down on the Government’s position with a letter to school leaders about “maximising” school attendance.

“We are at a crucial point in the pandemic and must collectively act now to ensure lower levels of attendance do not become the accepted norm,” the letter says.

“I hope you agree on the urgency.” For the Morris family in Somerset, the letter was devastating. Toby Morris, aged 10, has had Type 1 Diabetes since he was a baby. His sister, Phoebe, seven, is a brittle diabetic who needs round-the-clock monitoring.

“Because the Government is saying no one has to shield and children should attend as normal, we’re stuck in this nightmare,” their dad Charlie,36, explains. “The bubbles, isolating, all the things schools were doing to keep children safe, it’s all gone out of the window.

“There are thousands of families like ours put in a position where schools are saying they can’t authorise any absence because it’s meant to now be attendance as normal – but because there are vulnerable people in our family that isn’t safe for us.

“School is important – I’m a former teacher. But an education is no good if you’re dead or suffering a chronic illness as a result of a nasty infection. Our son’s already suffered enough living with a life-long, life-limiting condition.”

The family are also being supported by the Good Law Project after they say their local MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, failed to reply to them.

This week, the Government ­introduced masks into communal areas in schools, but stopped short of further mitigations like increasing ventilation, classroom bubbles, masks in classrooms and further access to vaccinations for children.

Many Year 7 children won’t turn 12 until long after winter. Even then, the vaccination programme for children is grindingly slow.

Nadhim Zahawi recently met with Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and education committee member who believes “Covid isn’t a risk to children”. Andrew Lewer MP tweeted “Miriam Cates MP & I met with @nadhimzahawi about face masks in schools & our aspiration to phase them out.”

Cates is well-known for her ­opposition to mask wearing because “showing our faces is part of being human”. She has also called for an end to the regular testing of schoolchildren without symptoms, and says there is “no rush” for vaccines in schools.

For Ella Brooks, at home in the Midlands, catching Covid could be a death sentence. Her rare form of epilepsy means she suffers intense seizures particularly when she has a fever. These can start in her sleep and cause her to stop breathing.

“Once again we are behind Wales and Scotland in terms of mitigations being adopted, despite Covid currently running rampant through most schools in England,” her mum says.

“The message seems to be ‘attendance at all costs’ – but for us, that cost could be someone’s life.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The best place for young people is in the classroom, it is vital for their education and mental health which is a priority.

“All children should be supported to continue to attend school and our guidance to schools about attendance of clinically vulnerable children has been clear throughout. In line with guidance every child aged 12 and over with specific underlying health conditions has been offered the vaccine.”

No one wants a return to lockdown home schooling. And yet failing to use masks alongside mitigations like ventilation will likely end in soaring cases.

Yesterday, Gwynedd in North Wales, announced a return to online learning after a spike in cases. More councils may soon be following suit.

“There’s this false argument that you’re pro-freedom or pro-lockdown but it’s not that simple,” Sarah Morris says. “We don’t want lockdown and we want schools to stay open, but we need them to be made safer and at the moment, for families like ours, they’re not. As parents it’s really stressful.”

For her the choice comes down to one thing. “I’ve sat at my daughter’s bedside, watched her struggling. Her condition can be life-threatening and I have to do what I can to prevent that.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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