Sunday, March 7, 2021
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School testing and a healthy dose of scepticism

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IT WAS always unlikely that I would give consent for my daughter to participate in the mass coronavirus testing scheme to be rolled out in schools. The burden of proof, that it was necessary and ethical, was to my mind extremely high. If I were to permit my healthy eleven-year-old to insert a plastic stick two and a half centimetres into her delicate nasal cavity, after swiping it four times across the back of her throat, there would have to be a very good reason why. Having triggered the gag reflex in myself, tears streaming down my face, when self-administering the test back in April, I was uneasy about inflicting the same upon my child. At least when I did it, I had symptoms.

What too of the profound shift in culture, with schools now doubling up as medical centres? Should not a school simply be a place of learning, where children feel safe and secure, without trepidation at the prospect of an invasive medical test? With test centres scattered everywhere across the country, why not keep testing focused there instead of impinging upon our schools? To date, these objections have not been answered.

The risk of harm to children from Covid remains extremely low and the argument that testing will help break the chain of transmission continues to rest purely on conjecture. So, whilst it’s true that a test might reveal my daughter to be asymptomatic, and her consequential isolation might prevent someone, somewhere, from catching Covid and dying, we cannot be certain. What are the chances? Has this been quantified? Based on the known, established facts, the risk of harm from this proposed scheme outweighs any benefit. The burden of proof has not been satisfied.

On this basis alone, I would have refused consent. But in addition to these essentially utilitarian objections, I had a further pragmatic concern: the misapplication of the test itself. Reading the manufacturer’s ‘instructions for use’, it was abundantly clear that its planned deployment in schools was nothing short of negligent. It is intended only for those with symptoms, and yet it was going to be used only for those without; any result (whether positive or negative) should be interpreted in the context of the patient’s medical history and ‘other diagnostic information’, and yet negative results were to be automatically conclusive; the test is supposed to be conducted by ‘trained clinical laboratory personnel specifically instructed and trained in the techniques of in vitro diagnostic procedures’, and yet we were going to put them in the hands of children, some as young as eleven, to administer themselves. It mattered not that I had already decided to refuse consent – these worrying inconsistencies had to be challenged.

Raising a concern should have been easy, especially given the nature of what was being proposed. When medical interventions involve children, due diligence should be paramount. Yet I felt instinctively reluctant to seek clarification. My experience of the past year had taught me that any objection to government Covid policy is almost always misunderstood. It feels as though the vast majority either don’t have the time, or perhaps the inclination, to think carefully about what they will consent to. Pariah status is all too quickly conferred upon those of us asking questions, particularly when our conclusions lead us to resist whatever folly is being proposed. The continual assumption of bad faith was beginning to take its toll.

Frankly, I was tempted just to tick the ‘yes’ box and bury my head in the sand. It was a relief, then, that concerns about the test were raised from an entirely different quarter. When the Guardian ran an article revealing that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had expressed doubts about the reliability of the test, my confidence was restored. Whilst their concerns were of a different nature to mine, it reassured me that it was indeed right to ask questions. When the Department for Education sought to evade the MHRA’s scientific concerns on a mere technicality, it convinced me that a sceptical approach was entirely appropriate.

This last week has witness a marked increase in attacks on so-called ‘lockdown sceptics’ – a term now used pejoratively. Particularly concerning has been the targeted, personal nature of this aggression, with the argument degenerating into incendiary, irresponsible charges such as ‘blood on their hands’. This is a stain on our tradition of fairness, tolerance and rationalism. Given the extraordinary demands being made by the government, based on ‘the science’, there is no shame in considering alternative views, particularly when they are voiced by some of our most eminent scientists. And when we, as individuals, bring to bear our own personal specialisms – whether it be history, politics, economics, philosophy, theology or just good old-fashioned common sense – critically to analyse government policies, we exercise our civic duty.

It is not immoral to seek a balanced and fair (I would argue, socially just) approach to Covid. Indeed, wilfully ignoring the bigger picture is the unreasonable, immoral path. Refusing consent for my daughter to be tested in school was based on careful research and considered objections. My scepticism has integrity and I will continue to question and challenge the government’s Covid initiatives because truth and justice matter. It is what used to be known as a healthy dose of scepticism.

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Dominey Jenner
Dominey Jenner lives in London. She was a teacher but has been a stay-at-home mum for 11 years.

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