Coronavirus: Little evidence of Covid transmission in schools, says Williamson

There is little evidence of coronavirus being transmitted in schools, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

Mr Williamson said the government was being guided by the best science as it accelerated plans to reopen schools to all pupils in England next month.

Government advisers have warned the nation may have reached the limit of what can be reopened in society safely.

But Mr Williamson suggested an upcoming study would support the government’s position on reopening schools.

His comments come after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the reopening of schools – after months without in-person education – was the “national priority” of the government.

The prime minister, who is expected to visit a school later on Monday, is understood to have made it clear that schools should shut last in any future local lockdowns, after businesses including shops and pubs.

The current plan is for most children across the country to be back in class by next month.

Guidance on reopening has been published for England. There are also separate plans for Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, where schools are scheduled to return from Tuesday.

‘Growing confidence’

The Association of School and College Leaders has said there is an absence of clear guidance from the government, and schools are making their own contingency plans. It said teachers might teach students on a week-on, week-off basis if there was a resurgence of coronavirus.

But care minister Helen Whately told BBC Breakfast: “Our priority is to make sure that children are fully back in school come the autumn.”

She said the government wanted to keep schools open in the event of local lockdowns, adding that staff and pupils would “immediately have access to testing” if they showed symptoms.

Prof Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said “rota systems appear to make very little difference” to the level of risk.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said opening up schools was “one of the least risky things we can do” when it comes to easing lockdown.

The education secretary said there was “growing confidence among parents about their children returning” to the classroom.

In a statement issued on Sunday evening, he said: “This is down to the hard work of school staff across the country who are putting in place a range of protective measures to prepare to welcome back all pupils at the start of term.”

Mr Williamson also referred to the “latest research, which is expected to be published later this year – one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world”, saying it “makes it clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”.

He is believed to be referring to a forthcoming report to be released by Public Health England.

Meanwhile, the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has called for regular coronavirus testing in schools.

And the National Education Union deputy general secretary Avis Gilmore said: “Robust track, trace and test alongside health and safety checks in schools and colleges are necessary.”

However, schools minister Nick Gibb rejected the idea, telling Times Radio on Sunday that he did not support routine testing for teachers and pupils who did not have symptoms.

Schools across the UK closed on 20 March, except to children of key workers or vulnerable children. On 1 June, they began a limited reopening for early years pupils, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6.

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‘Improve test and trace’

Some government scientific advisers are calling for improvements in the test-and-trace system before schools reopen.

One, Prof Sir Jeremy Farrar, the director of the Wellcome Trust, said a “brief window” before schools reopen must be “used wisely”. Writing in the Observer he said: “Most urgently, we need to ramp up testing”.

Meanwhile, Labour is calling for a “rapid reform” of the test and trace system, suggesting local health protection teams are more effective than the national call centres.

The Labour Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, told Breakfast that England’s contact tracing system “isn’t yet good enough” for pupils to return to school in September.

He said the government must give local authorities resources to carry out some of the contract tracing and “give all employers in the country the ability [to support employees] to self-isolate on full pay”.

Figures released last week by the Department of Health and Social Care showed local teams continued to be more successful than call centre workers when it came to reaching close contacts of people who tested positive for coronavirus.

In a letter to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth and shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves raised concerns that the current model was “not fit for purpose”.

On Sunday, the UK reported a further eight people had died after testing positive for coronavirus, taking the total to 46,574. A further 1,062 people tested positive for Covid-19.

In another development, gyms, swimming pools, leisure centres and children’s play centres are being allowed to reopen in Wales on Monday, in a further easing of the lockdown restrictions.

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