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Coronavirus: ‘Very low’ risks to children mean school reopenings are safe, expert says

Public Health England research finds ‘very little evidence’ of coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Sunday 09 August 2020 15:46 BST
All you need to know from the latest UK coronavirus briefing

One of the most detailed studies yet will show that it is safe for schools to fully reopen next month, a leading child health expert has assured parents and students.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that the research, which was carried out in 100 institutions in the UK, will confirm “there is very little evidence” of coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned.

“The risks to children from Covid are very low and the risks of school closures we know are very serious,” he said.

Prof Viner revealed the Public Health England study as Boris Johnson beefed up his pledge to bring all pupils back in September, calling continued closures “morally indefensible”.

The prime minister cited growing fears about obesity, depression and abuse, as well as diminished education – with many children having not seen a classroom since the beginning of lockdown in March.

The National Education Union has called the supposed protections of better hygiene, student “bubbles” and staggered drop-off and lunch times “unworkable”.

And Nick Gibb, the schools minister, acknowledged that ministers cannot “decree” that all schools reopen for all year groups, because decisions will be made by local health chiefs.

But Prof Viner, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: “Britain as a nation should stand up and say: our children are essential.”

About 20,000 pupils and teachers in 100 schools were tested to monitor the spread of the disease up to the end of the summer term, he told The Sunday Times.

“This is the some of the largest data you will find on schools anywhere. Britain has done very well in terms of thinking of collecting data in schools,” he explained.

His team had also reviewed 35 studies from around the world that had examined schools and the coronavirus.

One finding has been that “children play a minor role in transmission of the virus and schools play a minor role in transmission of the virus”.

“Everything you do to reopen society will impact the national R [rate], but reopening schools, we believe, has a very small impact on it. The majority of cases are staff, not students,” Prof Viner said.

Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner, who has called for pubs to shut if necessary to keep schools open, welcomed the prime minister’s stronger language.

But she called for “weekly” coronavirus testing in all schools, telling Times Radio: “It should become part and parcel of what a good system around school should look like.”

“There is very low risk of infection for children who are in nursery and in primary, and I think that people are much more confident about that,” Ms Longfield said.

“With secondary schools, where you’ve got a bigger environment and older children, again in other countries there hasn’t been huge reporting of infection at all, but it makes sense that testing and tracking should be part of that.”

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