Pressure is mounting on the government to prove it is safe for children to return to the classroom before it reopens schools, as one of the UK government’s scientific advisers warned that the plan could lead to a resurgence of coronavirus.
In a last-minute plea before Boris Johnson announces on Monday details of plans to reopen schools in England on 8 March, unions, experts and some opposition MPs, have demanded the publication of scientific evidence informing the government’s decision.
They said such a move could only be justified if data showed it would not lead to the R number increasing above the danger threshold of one.
The call came as Prof John Edmunds confirmed nervousness about the schools reopening plan among some members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), of which he is one.
He said the move, which is expected to be confirmed by Johnson on Monday, risked pushing the reproduction rate for the virus above one.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show, Edmunds said: “I think if we open schools now, the reproduction number is likely to go to something close to one, potentially slightly above.”
Nine teachers’ and headteachers’ unions have branded the plans “reckless” and urged the government to commit to that date only if the scientific evidence is clear that it is safe.
Now an independent thinktank, the Education Policy Institute (EPI), and the Liberal Democrats have called for the data to be published alongside any reopening plan.
In a statement, the EPI said: “Independent health advice should support the reopening plan. And this should be consistent with keeping the R rate below one.”
Natalie Perera, the chief executive of the EPI, said: “We hope that the government will be able to announce this week a plan for the safe return to school for all children on, and after 8 March, but this must meet key tests of safety, and practicality.
“It is crucial that the government publishes the scientific advice on reopening schools in order to secure public confidence in its plans.”
Daisy Cooper, the Lib Dem education spokesperson, tweeted: “Fully reopening schools in one go just to see them close in a few weeks would be reckless. We need to see robust science behind any ‘open in one go’ plan, or a roadmap so once schools are fully open, they can stay open.”
Dr Mary Bousted, a joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “A ‘big bang’ reopening of schools on 8 March runs a series of unnecessary risks. It raises the prospect of returning the R rate to above one – at which point the virus spreads exponentially.
“This in turn could threaten the only government Covid success story – the vaccine rollout – because of the potential for new variants, against which vaccines appear to be less effective, to spread quickly through schools, and into the community.
“Surely Boris Johnson has had enough of English exceptionalism. What is so different about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, who are taking a cautious, phased approach to school opening which enables their governments to assess the impact on the R rate and to make necessary adjustments to their plans?”
But the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said he wanted all pupils in England back in school by 8 March.
He told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that more coronavirus testing and “Nightingale classrooms” could address some of the issues. Starmer said: “Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8th and all children back into schools on March 8th.
“I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children, and the attainment gap is getting bigger.”
He said the government would have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, “but that’s what we should be working towards”.
The former shadow chancellor John McDonnell said the unions knew best about what was safe for schools, but he denied a rift with Starmer.
Asked about Starmer’s comments, McDonnell said: “All the teachers’ union including those who represent the headteachers are all saying the same thing. So I think listen to the unions. I don’t think that’s different from what Keir is saying.
“Keir is saying when it’s safe, and if we have to have a staggered reopening of the schools, let’s listen to those on the frontline.”
Edmunds suggested he also favoured a phased reopening. Asked if it would be better to open primary schools before secondary schools, Edmunds said: “Sticking to the epidemiology, it is always safer to take smaller steps and evaluate.”
And he suggested that children should be vaccinated alongside adults. “I think there’s an argument for turning to children as fast as we can,” he said. Edmunds, who has two children in secondary school, added: “There will continue to be major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children.”
Education sources have told the Guardian that the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, was “very unhappy” with the idea of all 10 million children and staff returning to schools in England on 8 March, although the government denied this was the case and insisted Whitty was not opposed to any of the options being discussed.
— to www.theguardian.com