Schools should decide whether to reopen to stem the spread of the coronavirus, says UK public health chief

Head teacher Charlotte Beyazian arranges the classrooms to help provide a teaching environment safe from Coronavirus for pupils and teachers at La Petite Ecole Bilingue at Kentish Town, north London, on May 20, 2020, ahead of the Government's proposed recommencing of education for Reception and Year 1 classes. / AFP / Isabel Infantes
British schools should be free to decide for themselves when to reopen following nationwide closures to stem the spread of the coronavirus, a senior health official said on Friday.

A group of senior scientists has warned that 1 June is too soon for schools to reopen safely in England and that more time is needed to set up an effective track and trace system to contain future outbreaks.

The Independent Sage committee, which is separate from the government’s official advisers and is chaired by the former government chief scientist Sir David King, says new modelling of coronavirus shows the risk to children will be halved if they return to school two weeks later than ministers propose. Delaying until September would further reduce the risk.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government wants schools in England to reopen for some pupils from June 1 but the plans have been criticised by teaching unions and many local authorities say they will not be reopening institutions in their areas.


“Ultimately, it will be for the schools to decide whether they are ready for this and whether parents have confidence that they will send the children back,” Yvonne Doyle, medical director and director for health protection at Public Health England, told parliament’s science committee.

“I am confident that some schools may already feel they are ready to open, others may not.”

“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike,” Prof King said.
King went on to say that the decision of when to reopen schools was a “careful balance” but added it was vital for young people to get back to the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so. “The current climate is likely to disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in society, therefore it is vital that the government also considers innovative ways to help those who need it most.”

King established the Independent Sage committee amid concerns over the lack of transparency around scientific advice reaching ministers from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), co-chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Support for a fixed date for school return is vanishing quickly. What is needed now is local flexibility to determine when it is right for schools to open up to more pupils, informed by evidence of what is happening in their local area.”



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