Principal's Assembly 9th March 2021

For the last year, we have been told regularly that the Government is “following the science”. 12 months ago, very few of us would have heard of Professor Chris Whitty, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer and somewhat fortuitously an epidemiologist by trade, or his deputy, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, now known affectionately as JVT.

Few of us would have known of Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, or Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of the NHS. Fewer still of Dr Susan Hopkins, the Public Health England expert on infectious diseases.

PHE is just one of several acronyms that we’ve all become familiar with. SAGE is the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, active in advising the politicians since this crisis began. SAGE also uses advice generated by the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which is an existing group that advises the government on the threat posed by new and emerging respiratory viruses.

COBRA, the Government’s emergency committee, stands rather disappointingly for Cabinet Office Briefing Room A. Even COVID-19 itself is an acronym: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (the first year it was identified).

Less familiar, perhaps, will be the name Dr Sarah Gilbert. A vaccinologist based at the University of Oxford and someone who loathes the media spotlight, Dr Gilbert has been working for many years to find solutions for diseases as fatal as Ebola in West Africa and other types of coronavirus.

Born in Northamptonshire in 1962, the daughter of an English teacher, Dr Gilbert had a passion for both music – she is an accomplished saxophonist – and sciences. She graduated from the University of East Anglia with a degree in biological sciences, eventually setting up her own research group to create a universal flu vaccine - that means coming up with a jab which would be effective against all the different strains.

As soon as this pandemic broke, her team – and she would emphasise that it is a team effort – set out to find a vaccine for Covid as quickly as possible. Other companies – Pfizer and Moderna, for example – have achieved the same goal, but the Oxford vaccine has the advantage of being stored in normal fridges, making it easier to distribute.

Without the benefit of time, it’s hard to say exactly where this vaccine - made from a weakened version of a common cold virus from chimpanzees – will rank in terms of historical scientific achievements. How speedily it was developed will certainly be a noted feature, but perhaps I should leave this as a challenge to our A Level scientists to come back to me with greater achievements in medical sciences.

The presence of these great scientists either in press briefings or university labs has been one reassuring feature of the last 12 difficult months. Not all of the Government advice has felt logical. Unlike scientists, politicians have other priorities to weigh up, including political, economic and, especially relevant to us, educational and psychological. As has become clear, when you mix science and politics, you get politics.

One piece of advice, however, that has resonated with me is this idea that we should continue to behave as if we might have the virus. The vaccine will start to provide our families, especially our elderly or vulnerable relatives, with more confidence. The lateral flow tests – and I am so pleased that you consented to be tested – mean that we can feel safer as a community.

However, we know that the tests are not perfect. Whilst false positives are very rare, false negatives are not. In other words, you may have received a negative and you may have no symptoms, but it is still possible that you have the virus and may be transmitting it.

This is why we have maintained other controls against transmission – including bubbles and regular hand sanitising – and introduced others like face coverings inside classrooms as well as corridors until Easter. Like consenting for the test, this is a measure that will help to protect you, your friends and your teachers. Do your best not to touch each other – don’t let the test result give you false confidence.

If you think about it, following these rules at school will also prevent you from spreading the virus around your families too. If we follow the science carefully, we will get back to more normal conditions even quicker.

Like all my colleagues, I am delighted to see you all back at school this week. Work hard, look after yourself, your friends and your teachers, and, most of all, enjoy being back in our wonderful community.

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