Sunday, 2 January 2022

Why I'm Sick of Robert Halfon

I am sick of Robert Halfon. Nominally a "reasonable" Tory who was talking about blue collar conservatism before it was fashionable, as Chair of the Education Select Committee he has undermined public health messaging by loudly protesting against pupils masking up in the classroom now it's a (temporary) requirement. A position that is couched in oh so reasonable terms, but ultimately puts him in the same ballpark as his risible anti-mask colleagues.

Speaking to BBC Breakfast on Sunday morning, Halfon argued he was opposed to mask mandates because of their limited efficacy, and the documented impacts on children's mental health. First things first, the evidence for the role masking plays in limiting the spread of Covid is unequivocal. A US study found outbreaks were three-and-a-half times more likely in schools without masking than they were with. A wider, comparative study also found case rates were lower on average when masks were used than not. A review of evidence from this time last year found, without any doubt, that mask wearing was effective - though different kinds of masks have greater efficacy than others. On his worries about masks impacting the mental health and development of pupils, there is no firm evidence (only suggestions) that putting a mask on has deleterious effects. It is true restrictions involving absence from school does impact attainment, and which has a clear class gradient - but we're not taking about the same thing. The evidence so far suggests there are no long-term developmental consequences of masks in themselves. It's not like parents wear masks at home with their infant children.

Halfon might have genuine concerns about the impacts Covid mitigation has on the mental health and education of children, but where were these scruples these last 11 years when he nodded through every vindictive cut to social security? Taking money off social security recipients, predominantly women, are not going to do their children's mental health the world of good. How about cutting the Building Schools for the Future programme, forcing kids to sit in damp, draughty and crumbling buildings? His worries about the attainment of children forced into dilapidated classrooms didn't appear to trouble him? Hypocrisy is as natural to Halfon as lying is to the Prime Minister.

Let's not forget that Covid isn't a harmless case of the sniffles. With the highly infectious Omicron variant filling up hospitals in England, even with masking up and a smattering of air filters, numbers can only explode over the coming weeks. In case Halfon and those who think this doesn't matter, more infections means more strain on the NHS as disease spreads from children to parents and staff, and more people then have to take time off work. This is where the stupidity of "but the economy" thinking has led us. The second issue is the huge medical experiment the Tories are forcing our children to participate in. It has been well known from the beginning of the pandemic that Covid can and does cause neurological damage, especially among the seriously ill. Its ability to attack the brain raises issues about future disorders, and therefore questions around the long-term effects of Covid on young brains that are still developing. It might be that the link between serious illness and brain damage is the one that counts, and so infection ranging from the asymptomatic and mild symptoms, which is the lot for most children, won't carry the same risk od long-term complications. But then again we know that Long Covid can still hit, even if someone didn't experience illness.

With this wealth of information available at our fingertips, I refuse to believe Halfon is ignorant of the state of the science. So why has he taken it upon himself to become the reasonable face of the anti-mask wing of the Tory party? Writing in The Mail on Sunday, Halfon comes out with the usual guff about keeping children in schools, and noting in a throw away line that "My constituents are not at home, they’re working hard going out in their vans. They are making deliveries, they work in factories", affirming the Tory preoccupation of keeping at the beck and call of work. He argues for an "equivalent to a military campaign", with Nadhim Zawahi tasked with ringing up al 24,400 schools in England personally if needs be. He calls for a "taskforce" and a "database" that can swoop in to do what's necessary to keep our schools open. Except requiring children to wear masks, it seems.

Naturally, not everyone is aware of their interests, and this applies to politicians too. Given Halfon's pattern of behaviour - the shameless hypocrisy, the affected ignorance, the low level spreading of disinformation, desire to undercut schools' autonomy, and efforts to put himself in front of the cameras suggests something other than disinterested conduct and "genuine concerns". Not a leadership challenge - his backbench stable mates already have a favourite, but rather profile raising. Under Dave and Osborne, his star was on the rise until May dumped him from the Education Dept after her humiliation at the 2017 election. Since then, he has toadied his way round the parliamentary party looking for favour and preferment, which included a bizarre spat with the Board of Deputies. With a change of Tory leadership not beyond the bounds of possibility, you judge whether Halfon's anti-mask concerns and worry wart persona is heartfelt or a matter of career advancement. I've made my mind up.

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Blissex said...

«A wider, comparative study also found case rates were lower on average when masks were used than not. A review of evidence from this time last year found, without any doubt, that mask wearing was effective - though different kinds of masks have greater efficacy than others.»

I am disappointed that these statements are not only part of the wider campaign to distract from the test-trace-isolate vs. lockdown issue, like the arguments about vaccination, but that they are framed in the usual "fatalistic liberalism" way, because there is not one effectiveness of masks, but *two*, as to infecting others, and as to being infected by others, and it makes a lot of difference in both cases whether the others wear masks too. Consider these two cases:

* In a room there are ten people with masks.

* In the same room there are ten people, only one has a mask.

In the latter case what matters to the one person who has a mask is mostly its effectiveness at protecting her from infection, but in the former what matters to all ten is mostly how effective the masks are as to infecting other people.

This distinction is very important, including politically; infectious diseases (and similarly unemployment for example, which is also "infectious") are a clear case where *reciprocity* matters a lot more than "rugged individualism".

Graham said...

If the Labour Party's leadership had any connection with socialism they would point out that mask wearing is a basic matter of class solidarity. Anybody not wearing one is a scab.

(I am currently in isolation with Covid, feeling shit, and my patience with the anti-mask and anti-vax brigades is exhausted)

Playwright said...

I agree with Graham.