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Jennifer O’Connell: Parents are being gaslit into masking children

Having more diverse groups involved in decision-making isn’t just about fairness, it’s about better decisions

When you’re governing through a crisis, the principle of least harm should apply. If you’re faced with a range of unpalatable options, choose the one that causes minimal possible harm to the fewest people.

Lurching through the serial crises that constitute this pandemic, our Government is taking a more pragmatic interpretation of the principle. It is opting for a kind of harm minimisation-lite – the least harm to the fewest people at the lowest cost without upsetting a major lobby group or voter base.

So while their parents can continue to socialise in pubs or sit at their desk unmasked, children from third class up – among the cohort at least risk of serious illness from the virus, and also least able to complain – must wear a mask or be refused entry to school.

Parents are afraid to complain too much because they see masks as better than the alternative – a return to the classroom at the kitchen table

We don’t know much about the prolonged impact of mask-wearing on children of eight or nine. There’s no clear evidence to prove Barnardo’s statement that it will “impact [their] social and emotional development”. Nor is there much to support broadcaster Pat Kenny’s glib dismissal of those with concerns as “snowflakes”. It may be that this measure was necessary or our absolute best hope of reducing transmission, but since it was brought in with just 16 hours’ notice and no insight into the science, we’ve no way of knowing.

It isn’t anti-science or snowflaky to want to know why we’re not trying other measures first, or at least in tandem with it – such as introducing subsidised or free antigen testing for children, or reinstating contact tracing schools, or improving ventilation. We’ve heard a lot this week about Hepa filters – high-efficiency particulate air filters, aka the latest scientifically sound technology to get the snake oil treatment from the National Public Health Emergency Team (Nphet).

Chief epidemiological adviser Prof Philip Nolan said "they are not useful in the far corner of a room with 20-30 people, where you don't know the source of infection". This explanation, said UCC chemistry professor John Wenger – a member of the Government's expert panel on ventilation, which recommended them in some classrooms – "defies the laws of physics". It's hard to understand the logic that would opt to put masks on children before air filters in schools.

Parents are afraid to complain too much because they see masks as better than the alternative – a return to the classroom at the kitchen table. Even as the Taoiseach stressed there was no question of closing schools, Minister for Education Norma Foley brought up the prospect unprompted in an interview on RTÉ's News at One this week. "The priority is to ensure schools remain open, and parents are hugely appreciative of that," she said. Nphet's Dr Cillian de Gascun said he was "hopeful" schools could reopen after Christmas. If there's no question of schools closing, why are they spending so much time talking about it?

Part of the reason is that Nphet's mantra that children are not picking the virus up at school must be ringing increasingly hollow, even to those who keep saying it. "The major factor driving the rise in cases among younger schoolchildren remains socialisation outside school," deputy chief medical officer Ronan Glynn said this week, adding that the disease profile in that age group had "substantially changed". So where are we supposed to deduce the nation's nine-year-olds are doing all the socialising that's making them sick? In nightclubs? At Covid parties?

Parents who feel they are being gaslit are right. Common sense suggests unvaccinated five-12-year-olds are picking the virus up in schools, though the vast majority are recovering quickly with few ill effects. Is protecting their predominantly double- or triple-vaccinated parents a good enough reason to mask them? We don’t know. It’s definitely not a good enough reason to raise the spectre of closing schools again before we have even started to count the cost of the months of education already lost.

By 'parents', those in charge frequently appear to mean 'mothers', and we know how deep-rooted the distrust of women in this country runs

Recent communications from the Government and Nphet have been contradictory and chaotic – or as Labour leader Alan Kelly put it, "frankly diabolical" – but there is a unifying theme. That theme is one of distrust.

We're not trusted with a discussion on the science of masking young children, just as back in the spring of 2020 we weren't trusted to wear masks ourselves, in case we decided to treat it "like a hurling helmet", as chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan patronisingly explained.

We are not trusted not to engage in “anticipatory behaviour” whenever restrictions are easing. Up until a couple of weeks ago, we were regarded as too thick to follow the instructions on an antigen test. Now parents are being not-so-subtly blamed for the rising cases among five-to-12-year-olds with the endless references to sleepovers, Communions and playdates.

By "parents", those in charge frequently appear to mean "mothers", and we know how deep-rooted the distrust of women in this country runs. It was notable that at the meeting where the decision was taken to mask children, there were no child psychologists or child development experts in the room. As professor of psychology Orla Muldoon and others have pointed out, there were no women either. Having more diverse groups involved in making decisions that affect all of us isn't just about fairness, it's about better decisions.

It may be that masking children helps to reduce the incidence of the disease in the wider community. It may also be that some children’s social and emotional development is impaired in ways that won’t be immediately visible. Be sceptical of anyone who tells you either thing with certainty. Masking children is cheap, easy to implement and should help reduce transmission, but that doesn’t mean it is entirely cost-free. Yes, children are adaptable and resilient, and all the other things adults say to make ourselves feel better. But we need to stop conducting psycho-social experiments on them anyway.