The UK should be vaccinating children “as fast as we can” to keep schools open, a leading government scientific adviser says.
“Until we’ve all been vaccinated – I include children here – then there is going to be significant risk,” warned Professor John Edmunds.
Trials are underway in the safety of extending the jabs programme from adults, but no plans have been announced by the government.
Prof Edmunds, who sits on the Sage advisory committee, said ministers could be “confident” in easing some restrictions, pointing to the very low risk of infection outdoors.
But he said: “We’re all at risk and we can all spread the virus. I think there is an argument for turning to children as fast as we can.”
And he added: “There has been major disruption in schools – and will continue to be major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children.”
Ahead of the expected go-ahead to reopen all schools on 8 March, the professor warned it could push the R number above 1 – meaning the epidemic would be growing again – so other restrictions must stay.
“If we eased off very rapidly now, we would get another surge in hospitalisations, so we have to ease very gradually,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
“Otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we’ll get a surge in hospitalisations, and indeed deaths.”
Cautioning that the South African variant is being “held in place now, as everything else is being held in place by the lockdown”, Prof Edmunds added: “The risk comes really when we release the lockdown.”
Boris Johnson will release his “roadmap” for lifting lockdown in England on Monday afternoon, after finalising the details in meetings with scientists and key ministers today.
At least some schools will reopen on 8 March, the date when care home residents will be allowed one regular visitor and – probably – the rules on meeting people from other households outdoors will be relaxed.
One option is for households to be able to meet in each other’s gardens for the Easter weekend at the start of April, with non-essential shops also likely to open that month.
But pub organisations believe no date will be set for the full reopening of hospitality – extremely unlikely to be before May – although outdoor eating and drinking could be allowed earlier.
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, again insisted the unwinding would be “cautious”, pointing to almost 20,000 people still in hospital with Covid-19.
“The vaccination programme, while clearly going very well, will take time to be able to reach all people who have significant vulnerability, especially because we need to get the second jab to everybody,” Mr Hancock said.
“We have seen throughout this pandemic that there have been moments when things haven’t got as we expected – for instance, when the new variant was first discovered in Kent.”
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