Coronavirus: Government cannot ‘open everything’ if schools are to return safely, Independent Sage warns

Coronavirus: Government cannot ‘open everything’ if schools are to return safely, Independent Sage warns


Coronavirus: Government cannot ‘open everything’ if schools are to return safely, Independent Sage warns

Coronavirus: Government cannot ‘open everything’ if schools are to return safely, Independent Sage warns

Coronavirus: Government cannot ‘open everything’ if schools are to return safely, Independent Sage warns 1

The government cannot “open everything” if schools are to safely return next month, the Independent Sage group of scientists has warned.

Ministers face “some hard decisions” if bringing children back to school is to remain a main priority as Boris Johnson has said, warned the committee of experts set up to scrutinise the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

They said the government’s decision ease the lockdown further on Saturday – when casinos, bowling alleys and indoor performing arts venues will be able to reopen – “seems exactly the wrong approach” to keep infections down.


Dr Zubaida Haque, who sits on the panel, said the government must ensure the level of Covid-19 in local areas is low to prevent a “super-spreader” situation with schools.

While this means working closely with local authorities and public health teams, it also means “we can’t have everything”, she said in a press conference on Friday.

“The government need to think very hard about the fact, that can they open everything – like pubs, casinos and other places – and at the same time ensure that coronavirus cases remain low in the community,” said Dr Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust.

She added: “We at Indy Sage don’t believe that is entirely possible at the moment.

“We think they need to make some hard decisions if schools remain a top priority.”

Downing Street has previously said pubs could shut next month if there is a local outbreak to keep schools open – who would be the “absolute last” group to close.

Dr Haque made her comments during a press conference following the publication of an Independent Sage interim report about schools, which are due to reopen to all students in England next month.

“There is good evidence that, where community transmission of Covid-19 is low or controlled in a country as a whole, re-opening schools has little effect on increasing spread of Covid-19 nationwide,” the document said.

“However, at a local level, there is also clear evidence that re-opening any particular school can result in a local outbreak or cluster of infections.”

In the report, the group – which formed as a breakaway group from the government’s Sage committee – laid out five steps that must be taken for schools to safely welcome back students next month.

They included reducing the level of virus circulating in the community to avoid schools worsening a local outbreak and an improved test-and-trace system to help schools react quickly to a Covid-19 case.

There have been recent calls for a better test-and-trace system after experts warned the UK risks a second wave if schools reopen without a scaled-up version.

Other suggestions from Independent Sage included more detailed guidance from the Department for Education on how to reopen safely and plans to support the education of children in deprived communities.

The committee also called for “clear and consistent communication” between government and headteachers, staff and parents “to manage opening and keeping open schools in response to local conditions”.

Dr Christina Pagel, a UCL mathematician, noted the UK had recently reported daily tallies of coronavirus cases exceeding 1,000 – a figure the Joint Biosecurity Committee have raised alarm over.

“We still believe the government priority should be to keep driving down infections to enable schools to fully open in September,” said the director of the university’s Clinical Operational Research Unit.

“The good news is that is totally achievable.”

However, she said she thought the decision to relax more lockdown measures “seems exactly the wrong approach to keep driving down cases” given the recent daily totals.

The lockdown will be relaxed in England from Saturday, with indoor theatre and music venues able to hold socially distanced events again.

Casinos, bowling alleys and soft play centres have also been given the green light to reopen following months of closure.

Schools are expected to reopen to all students in September, after some children have been out of the classroom since March due to coronavirus.

A government spokesperson said: “Making sure all children are back in the classroom full-time in September is a national priority as this is the best place for their education, development and wellbeing.

“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice, and PHE evidence so far indicates that schools do not appear to be a primary driver of coronavirus infections in the community.”

They added: “We have set out the protective measures that schools should implement to reduce risks for staff and pupils as far as possible.”

The Cabinet Office have been approached for comment.


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