Monday briefing: Latest GM Covid data and primary school fiasco

Labour calls for a nationwide lockdown as back-to-school day descends into chaos

Good morning — 2021 is feeling remarkably like 2020. We’re at another one of those moments when Covid-19 cases are spiralling, massive rows are breaking out about what to do with schools, Labour is calling for a new national lockdown and the government is making noises about stricter measures without announcing them. In today’s briefing we have:

  • The latest Greater Manchester data.

  • An update on local primary schools.

  • Our recommendations for the week.

  • And our first-ever Mill letters page.

One quick request: If you work in the NHS and you would like to help our reporting in the weeks ahead, please just hit reply to this newsletter. All information is treated in confidence.

Schools chaos

Primary schools were supposed to go back this morning, and many have. But some haven’t, and parents at others weren’t sure up until last night what was happening at their school. It’s a huge mess.

We called around a handful of schools in Greater Manchester this morning to see what they are doing. A primary in Chadderton confirmed that they were only open to staff today. One in Hale said they were open as usual to all children. 

  • And then there are some in the middle. A school in Oldham is only open to vulnerable children and children of key workers. The headteacher wrote to parents yesterday to say:

I now have to inform you that school will only be open for Key Worker children and Vulnerable children from Monday 4th January 2021. This is due to the majority of our teachers following their Union advice around returning to work under Section 44 of the Health and Safety Act. The Unions have advised members that it is not safe to return to work if a school is in a Tier 4 area.

The confusion becomes about because:

  • The government says schools are safe and children should go back.

  • Teaching unions disagree, saying their members are being put at risk.

  • Councils in Greater Manchester are mostly sitting on the fence, with Manchester City Council’s lead on education saying “we are not giving blanket advice to schools to remain closed currently…” His statement is below.

Call out: If you would like to tell us about your experience with schools this week, please hit reply to this newsletter.

Data-check: Covid-19

Top line: Nationally, the latest Covid data looks very worrying. There are more patients in hospital with the virus than the April peak, and the line showing national case rates is so steep it is practically vertical.

  • “This is a national emergency,” Labour’s shadow health secretary tweeted last night, adding: “We need a national lockdown.”

Here’s the graph everyone is looking at:

Locally, case rates are rising again. Greater Manchester is averaging about 280 new cases per 100,000 residents in the past week, with rates highest in Bury, Trafford and Wigan. That’s a 65% increase over the past fortnight.

  • Context: GM is still well below the England average of 510, and still far from the case rate of 550 we saw here in late October. The justification for putting us in Tier 4 was the fear of the new strain spreading here as it has in London, Andy Burnham told journalists last week.

The number to watch: Critical care. The number of Covid-19 patients in critical beds in GM just before Christmas had come down to half the peak we saw in mid-November - as you can see below. That was a huge relief.

  • Now it’s rising again, and this time it is rising from a much higher base because wards haven’t had time to empty out after the October/November spike in admissions. That’s a big concern. We will update this number every week, and the full hospital numbers are here.


If you missed it…

Our weekend read yesterday was about the Seven Sisters blocks in Rochdale. It uncovers their unusual history as a council estate built to attract professional people to the town and their deterioration in recent years as the blocks have emptied out. Read it here.

Here’s a passage from the piece:

"You get that angry with it," says Debbie, who says people have been ripping the copper boilers out. What was it like ten years ago? "Alright," says the woman who still lives in the block. "It weren't that bad." Tahrir points at the pedestrian area around us and up at the block. "All this place used to be busy man," he says, speaking passionately. "Every flat used to be out. Christmas trees from the bottom all the way to the top. Decorations, it used to be a beautiful time. Not anymore."

Things to do this week

Music | HOME x Manchester Camerata presents Renew, a specially-filmed concert that is “designed to calm, centre, refresh and renew” — a perfect way to start 2021. This is running all week, with two concerts a day, one in the morning and one in the evening.

  • What to expect: It will feature music by Philip Glass, Roxanna Panufnik and Pyotr Tchaikovsky. Get a taste of what’s in store by listening to Roxanna Panufnik’s Modlitwa and book your tickets here.

Discuss | Manchester Art Gallery remains closed, but they have plenty of online sessions to help keep your mind sharp. This week you can look forward to “MAG Unlocked: Out of the crate” and the Philosophy Café, which asks “How much should the state intervene in our health?”

Shop | If you like books and you like rummaging, then we recommend you don’t miss out on Elizabeth Gaskell's House second-hand book sale, which takes place on 10 Jan. It’s been named as “Manchester’s best second-hand book sale” by visitors.

  • If the idea of bagging a paperback for £1 sounds exciting, then make sure you pre-book your slot.

Exhibitions | Castlefield Gallery invited 15 artists from the North West to re-make an existing piece of their work with one condition: they had to accept a bespoke “obstruction” given to them by another artist in the exhibition.

  • We liked Christopher Rainham’s “Near the Bare Poplar’s Tip (2020)”.

Book of the week

Mayflies, by Andrew O’Hagan. A funny, poignant novel about a group of Scottish lads who descend on Manchester and vow “to go at life differently.” The Times describes it as “A joyful, warm and heart-filling tribute to the million-petalled flower of male friendship.”

“The bus gets into Manchester just after two.” He spread a few beer mats on the table. It was like General Patton planning the advance of the Third Army through France. “We go to Piccadilly Records. We hit the town centre for a few beers. We get some grub on our way to the International Club and we go and see the Shop Assistants. I don’t know where we sleep.”

It’s half-price here.

Letters to the editor

The “cladding crisis” isn’t just about cladding. The block I own a flat in was inspected shortly after Grenfell and it was discovered that it did not comply with Building Regulations Section B (fire) in force at the time. The overall cost is likely to be in the region of £4million and the remediation runs into tens of thousands of pounds per flat. We have written to the CEO of the developer Bellway, but have not heard back. Neither has our MP. The building was signed off by Manchester City Council. There are so many leaseholders affected in similar ways to the ones in your article. I feel so sorry for young people who live in buildings with cladding or similar defects to ours and aren’t able to sell. Moira Sykes, Manchester

I really enjoyed your piece on the Rochdale tower — it really showed what is happening to the broader landscape of social housing, while questioning the council’s decisions. I want to only point out that there was an uncontested claim about “Polish, Romanian and African refugees” and demographic change slowly destroying life in the towers. I felt this was slightly unfair, and could have been corrected after the quote, as Polish and Romanian people cannot be refugees in the UK, as they had the right to enter and work. And of course, if there were some people of African origin living in the towers, it would have been helpful to detail their narrative. Aditya Ramesh, University of Manchester.

One element your excellent article about Lydia Becker didn’t cover was her being one of the first cohort of women elected to public office in England by all those who had the vote (women as well as men) following W E Forster’s Elementary Education Act of 1870. This allowed for the creation of School Boards, and Lydia was the first woman elected to the Manchester School Board. When laying the foundation stone for the Burgess Street Board School, Harpurhey, she criticised the Board’s policy on differential curriculum and famously said: “It was a great mistake to suppose that domestic duties were limited to girls and women …. every boy in Manchester should be taught to darn his own socks and cook his own chops.” Steve Roman, Manchester

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