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Schools could become virus epicentres amid weak evidence children cannot infect others, Government adviser warns

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 13/05/2020 Ewan Somerville
a store inside of a building: Nicola Sturgeon has said she does not expect schools to reopen as early as June (PA) © Provided by Evening Standard Nicola Sturgeon has said she does not expect schools to reopen as early as June (PA)

Schools could become infection epicentres when they reopen amid a “low degree of confidence” in evidence that children cannot spread the virus, a Government adviser has warned.

Osama Rahman, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education (DfE), said “hundreds of potential vectors” for Covid-19 could come together if schools are reopened.

The expert, who has sat on 10 meetings of the Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), also warned there is “always a risk of transmission” if classrooms open to more pupils.

He told MPs: “There are some studies which suggest that [children] might transmit it less than adults but this evidence is mixed."

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Gavin Williamson wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Gavin Williamson faced questions from MPs earlier (PA) © Provided by Evening Standard Gavin Williamson faced questions from MPs earlier (PA)

He added: "It’s quite early and so there is a low degree of confidence among Sage currently in the evidence which suggests that they might transmit it less.”

It came as teaching unions upped the ante on ministers to “step back” from their plan to get many primary pupils back in the classroom from June 1.

Nine unions, representing thousands of school leaders, teachers and support staff, hit out at the Government for a “lack of understanding” about the risks attached to reopening schools.

A joint statement, published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), warns that teachers will “not be protected” by social distancing if the current plan goes ahead.

It says: “We call on the Government to step back from June 1 and work with us to create the conditions for a safe return to schools based on the principles and tests we have set out

a group of people standing next to a person: The Housing Secretary said schools will not need PPE after the lockdown (PA) © Provided by Evening Standard The Housing Secretary said schools will not need PPE after the lockdown (PA)

“We all want schools to reopen, but that should only happen when it is safe to do so.”

Downing Street has said it expects to allow nurseries and primary pupils in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 to return from June 1 at the earliest.

The Government issued guidelines on Monday urging class sizes of no more than 15, outdoor space should be utilised, pupils should be taught in small ‘bubbles’, and lunch, break and drop-off and pick-up times should be staggered to keep children apart.

Labour’s shadow education secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey said there were “serious problems” with the proposed reopening plans.

But Gavin Williamson, facing questions in the Commons on reopening schools on Wednesday, warned it was disadvantaged children who will lose out if schools remain shut.

"Sometimes scaremongering, making people fear, is really unfair and not a welcome pressure to be placed on families, children and teachers alike," he told MPs.

He added that the Government had worked “very closely with all the teaching unions and headteachers’ unions”, with time made available each week to discuss matters.

Unions issued a list of demands to ministers last week demanding extra money for personal protective equipment (PPE) and deep cleaning, and local autonomy to close schools if they become a hotbed for infections.

In pictures: Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak around the world (Photos)

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Stay at home as much as possible to stop coronavirus spreading - here is the latest government guidance. If you think you have the virus, don't go to the GP or hospital, stay indoors and get advice online. Only call NHS 111 if you cannot cope with your symptoms at home; your condition gets worse; or your symptoms do not get better after seven days. In parts of Wales where 111 isn't available, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47. In Scotland, anyone with symptoms is advised to self-isolate for seven days. In Northern Ireland, call your GP.

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