Reopening schools could allow children to become “vectors” for spreading coronavirus, a top government scientist has admitted.
Osama Rahman, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education, said there is “low confidence” among scientists on Sage, the expert group advising the government on coronavirus, that children spread the virus any less than adults.
Rahman was questioned by MPs on the impact of the government’s plan to partly reopen schools as early as June.
He said: “There’s no evidence to suggest that children transmit the virus any more than adults.
“There are some studies that suggest they might transmit less than adults, but this evidence is mixed.
“It's quite early and so there is a low degree of confidence amongst Sage in the evidence that they might transmit it less.”
SNP MP Carol Monaghan asked: “So since there’s a low degree of confidence, we are potentially putting together hundreds of potential vectors who can then go and transmit, is that correct?”
Rahman replied: “Possibly, depending on school sizes.”
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Rahman also said the Department for Education has not made any assessment on whether the advice for schools to reduce the spread of the virus, published on Monday, can be effectively implemented.
Labour MP Zarah Sultana, who quizzed the scientific adviser on whether the guidance can be implemented, said his answer “will not give confidence to teachers or parents”.
On the @CommonsSTC, I just asked the Department for Education's Chief Scientific Adviser what assessment he's made of implementing the Government's guidance on reopening schools.
He replied that he hasn't made an assessment.
This will not give confidence to teachers or parents.
— Zarah Sultana MP #JoinAUnion (@zarahsultana) May 13, 2020
Boris Johnson plans to reopen schools in a “phased manner” as early as 1 June as part of his plan to ease the coronavirus lockdown.
All teachers and pupils will be able to be tested for COVID-19 if they develop symptoms when they return to schools, the education secretary has said.
Gavin Williamson said this would enable a “track-and-trace approach” to be taken with any confirmed cases, as schools plan to begin a phased reopening from 1 June.
He added based on the medical and scientific advice, the reintroduction of classroom teaching next month was “the right thing to do and the only reasonable thing to do”.
Williamson also confirmed he was looking “very closely” at proposals for summer school catch-up tuition, following concerns that vulnerable children were not receiving the education they needed during lockdown.
Answering an urgent question in the Commons from the Lib Dems’ Layla Moran, Williamson said: “On Monday my department published initial guidance for settings on how to begin to prepare and we’ll work with the sector leaders to develop this further in the coming weeks.
“This guidance sets out protective measures to minimise the risk of infection, including restricting class sizes and limiting mixing between groups.
“Crucially, all children and staff will have access to testing if they develop symptoms of coronavirus.”
Rebecca Long Bailey, Labour’s shadow education secretary, said: “Labour shares concerns that the inequalities that already exist will widen while schools are closed, and returning to school when it is safe to do so is a priority for the sake of pupils' education and wellbeing.
“But there are serious problems with the proposed plan to reopen schools on 1 June, which have been raised by parents, school leaders, teaching staff and trade unions.
“Labour urges the government to urgently work collaboratively with trade unions to create clear conditions, based on the tests they have set out, so that every school can implement them to ensure a safe return. Schools should only reopen when those safety conditions have been met.”