It’s ‘not safe’ to reopen all schools next week and could lead to a surge in coronavirus cases, experts have today warned.
A panel of scientists, set up to challenge decisions made by ministers, fear the move to reopen schools in England on June 1 goes against scientific advice and ‘jumps the gun’.
Pushing classrooms to return will undoubtedly see the R levels raise and could risk a surge of cases in some communities, the report by the ‘independent SAGE’ warned.
Delaying schools reopening to June 15 approximately halves the risk that a child will catch Covid-19, they said.
In any situation, the chances a child would die are extremely low. But children have the ability to transmit the virus to adults, such as teachers or parents.
And they claimed an aggressive test, trace and track programme which works on a local level would limit spread of the virus when schools reopen.
But head of NHS Test and Trace, Baroness Dido Harding, said the local element will not be fully in place until the end of June.
Independent Sage, set up to challenge decisions made by ministers, said delaying a school reopening to June 15 approximately halves the risk that a child will be infected and it would be almost impossible by September
The UK Government’s position is that schools in England should reopen from 1st June to pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6. It’s provoked a mixed response with huge criticism from teaching unions. Pictured: Headteacher Elaine Bradley in a rearranged classroom at Slaithwaite C of E Junior and Infant School in Slaithwaite, near Huddersfield
Independent Sage revealed the impact of opening schools on the chances a child under the age of ten would get infected in the coming weeks. The average number of children who catch the virus in a 400-children class are represented in this diagram
Independent Sage was created when the official Sage (scientific advisory group for emergencies) faced criticism for its lack of transparency in advice given to the Government.
In its latest report, the committee looked over the official Sage reports which helped inform decisions on when schools should return.
Sage modelled what would happen in seven different scenarios, all of which result in the ‘R’ rate increasing.
The R rate is how many people one infected person transmits the virus to. If it is 3, it means 10 people would pass it on to 30 more, and so on.
The most recent estimates for the UK are that R is between 0.7-1, and Sage warned last week the UK was on the brink of surpassing 1.
An R rate above 1 would cause cases to spiral uncontrollably – and Sage says this would happen in any given scenario of schools returning.
How bad the situation became would depend entirely on the location, including how many tests were available and whether test, track and trace was running properly.
Where there are ongoing new infections within the community, evidence suggests that reopening schools could increase the spread of the virus by up to 0.3 on the R value.
The Independent Sage report said: ‘The school reopening scenario chosen by the government is not one of those modelled by SAGE making the potential impact of reopening even more uncertain. Robust testing systems are not in place everywhere.
‘Additionally, public adherence to social distancing is influenced by trust in the government and its messaging.
‘This trust is increasingly strained. We therefore believe that by going ahead with a general school reopening from 1 June, the government is not following the advice of its SAGE group and is risking a new surge in cases of COVID19 in some communities.’
Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser who chairs Independent Sage, said the Government were ‘jumping the gun’.
Head teacher Frances Swallow (R) works with Teaching Assistant Sarah Yates (L) tries to create a safe teaching environment at Marsden Infant and Nursery School in Marsden
Teaching Assistant Sarah Yates applies tape to the floor to define a 2m boundary around the teacher’s workspace
He told The Independent: ‘Whilst we totally understand the imperative to get the nation’s children back in the classroom as soon as it is safe to do so, the evidence clearly shows that the government has jumped the gun here.
DANGER OF CORONAVIRUS TO CHILDREN IS LOW, SCIENTISTS SAY
The government’s SAGE experts have suggested children are at low danger from coronavirus – and warned the ‘shock’ of school closures are blighting a generation.
Although the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies admit there is no certainty, a raft of papers suggest that children are less likely to be infected and infectious than adults, and teachers do not seem at heightened risk.
The documents, prepared in the weeks up to May 1, float the idea of splitting classes in half and having children attend schools alternate weeks, saying that could slash the effect on the coronavirus ‘R’ number.
Unions insisted the SAGE evidence, published before Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed schools would be opening on June 1, was ‘inconclusive’ and demanded delay.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has said reopening schools was likely to push the R rate up. But he stressed that was the case for any change to lockdown, and schools were ‘not a high risk area for R’.
Speaking at the Downing Street press briefing on May 22, Sir Patrick said coronavirus was a ‘long term epidemic’ and ‘schools have to get back for education for our young people at some point’
Sir Patrick said: ‘The risk for children (from coronavirus) is much lower – we know that.
‘They are at low risk but not zero risk and there have been some serious cases of children, of course, but very few compared to adults and older age groups.
‘The broader risk in terms of opening schools is that as soon as you introduce any contact, you put pressure on the R and you put pressure on numbers, and that’s true of anything we are going to do in terms of changes to contact.’
Eminent statistician Sir David Spiegelhalter said the risk of coronavirus to children is ‘unbelievably low’ and claimed children carry just a fraction of the viral load compared to adults, which significantly reduces their ability to fall ill or infect others.
He pointed out that just one out of 7million children aged four to 14 in England and Wales has died from COVID-19.
Professor Spiegelhalter said that at least one child had died from a rare inflammatory illness linked to coronavirus, but reassured parents that the risk of the complication would now be ‘much lower now the epidemic in the community is under control.’
He also said data has also shown that teachers do not have a greater risk of becoming infected.
‘Crucially we conclude that the best way forward cannot be one size fits all, it requires localised case by case responses to ensure that the risk of flair ups is kept to a minimum.’
The report said ‘robust testing and tracing procedures’ will reduce the chance of infectious staff, parents, or children attending school.
Decisions on schools reopening should be based on whether there is a well-functioning contact tracing system in place at a local level.
This means local councils are set up with all the right resources to deliver tests to people and monitor outbreaks in the area – without being overwhelmed.
It is important that timely information from these sources is available at the local level and can be accessed by head teachers, other teachers, and parents and children.
Local public health services should collect data and notify head teachers when there is evidence of a local hotspot emerging, the report said.
‘We have seen no compelling evidence that these conditions have so far been met across the country. Until they are, it is not safe to open schools everywhere on June 1,’ scientists warned.
Baroness Dido Harding, who is heading up the NHS Test and Trace system, admitted to MPs the scheme may not be ready on a local level until the end of June, Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who was in the call, claimed.
The UK Government’s position is that schools in England should reopen from 1st June to pupils in reception, Year 1 and Year 6.
It’s provoked a mixed response with huge criticism from teaching unions who fear for the safety of both children, teachers and their families who will face the risk of becoming infected after weeks in lockdown.
Independent Sage revealed the impact of opening schools on the chances a child under the age of ten would get infected in the coming weeks.
It used data from mathematical models which have mapped the spread of Covid-19 in the UK and assumed the R number was below 1.
If a child returned to school on June 1, there is a 4.2 per cent chance they would come into contact with a classmate who has the coronavirus – four times what it would be if they stayed at home.
The risk halves if the child goes back to school on June 15, and is cut to 0.5 per cent if plans are pushed back to September.
The chances the child would actually catch the virus is very low in any given situation, and extremely low for death.
On June 1, there is a 1.5 per cent chance a child would catch the coronavirus and a 0.23 in a million chance they would die from it.
Waiting two weeks would slash those odds by half to 0.76 per cent and 0.11 in a million chance, respectively.
To put this into perspective, the daily chance of being killed in a road traffic accident is about 0.074 per million, the team noted.
Staying at home at all time points is about half as risky as going to school, but also means that children do not get the benefit of having face-to-face learning and seeing their friends, which is a key reason ministers want school to return.
The problem there in lies with the fact many children who become infected could still pass the virus onto other children and adults.
Children are just as likely to catch the coronavirus as adults, current UK data suggests, but don’t seem to be diagnosed often.
This is for two reasons – children to do not show the typical symptoms that adults to, if at all, and testing has only been recently expanded to children.
Children may be less likely than adults to pass the virus to others based on how long they are infectious for, the report said.
Whether or not a school classroom is the perfect environment for the virus to spread remains to be seen, but so far there has been no worrying evidence of this from the thousands of children of key workers who have been going to school during the pandemic.
The contact tracing system got running today, with an army of 25,000 call-handlers to identify primary contacts of Covid-19 patients.
It’s been launched without a much anticipated phone app which in theory will detect strangers who a Covid-19 patient has been in close proximity to.
Everyone who displays coronavirus symptoms will be asked to report themselves to ‘test and trace’ officials either online or through a new helpline.
Their job will be to find, test and isolate these people and contact anyone who they have had close interactions with. Family members, flatmates, partners and close contacts will be told to go into isolation for a fortnight even if they have no symptoms.
NHS chiefs have warned ‘key bits’ of the system are not yet operational and staff working behind the scenes said the site crashed.
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