UK's Chief Medical Officers tell parents children can return to school

It IS safe to go back to school: UK’s Chief Medical Officers unanimously tell parents their children can return to classrooms next month as they face an exceptionally small risk’ from coronavirus

  • All 12 Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers agreed school was not harmful 
  • Highly unusual ‘consensus statement’ removed final hurdle to back to school 
  • Agreed ‘very few, if any, teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19’
  • Say any small risk has to be offset against negative impact of missing school 

Parents can send their children back to school next month safe in the knowledge that they face an ‘exceptionally small risk’ from coronavirus, the UK’s Chief Medical Officers have said in a unanimous ruling.

The highly unusual ‘consensus statement’ from the country’s most senior experts removes the final hurdle to the resumption of full-time teaching in September – to the relief of parents who have been forced to home-school the majority of children since March.

All 12 Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Officers agree that ‘very few, if any, teenagers will come to long-term harm from Covid-19 due solely to attending school’. And they say that small risk has to be offset against ‘a certainty of long-term harm to many children from not attending school’.

The experts also conclude that ‘teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19’ compared to other workers, and say that the evidence from other countries is that reopening schools is not linked to a surge in cases.

Pupils sit apart during a socially distanced language lesson at Longdendale High School on July 16, 2020 in Hyde, England

Their reassuring statement comes after Boris Johnson issued a rallying cry in The Mail on Sunday a fortnight ago, telling union leaders trying to block the reopening of schools that the country had a ‘moral duty’ to resume lessons. 

And last week Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer argued – also in this newspaper – that Mr Johnson had a ‘moral responsibility’ to carry out his promise.

The intervention of the medical experts came as:

  • Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded; 
  • The Government said that 41,423 people had died in the UK within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 by yesterday, an increase of 18 on the day before; 
  • Town hall chiefs in the North West claimed they were being ‘punished’ with draconian new lockdown restrictions for having good testing regimes; 
  • Sources said senior figures across Government were being briefed to prepare for a second UK-wide lockdown in November in a ‘worst-case scenario’ if infection rates continue to rise; 
  • Former Chief Scientific Adviser Professor Sir Mark Walport warned that coronavirus will be present ‘forever’, not eradicated like smallpox, and people are likely to need regular vaccinations against it, as they do for flu; 
  • The US government’s leading health research body raised major concerns about a secretive Chinese laboratory suspected to be the source of the pandemic, and demanded answers about the ‘apparent disappearance’ of a scientist there who is considered to be ‘Patient Zero’; 
  • Britons scrambled to get back from Croatia, Austria and Trinidad and Tobago before new quarantine restrictions came into force, while others raced to book bank holiday breaks in Portugal after it was ‘green-listed’ as safe.

In their statement, the Medical Officers brush aside teaching unions’ safety fears by declaring that ‘there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19’.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson (pictured), the Minister responsible for getting schools to reopen, faced new criticism over his handling of the A-level results fiasco as it was revealed he took a holiday just days before the crisis unfolded

They said the fatality rate for children aged five to 15 who become infected was just 14 in a million, ‘lower than for most seasonal flu infections’, and while every death of a child is a tragedy, ‘almost all deaths [from Covid] are in children with significant pre-existing health conditions’.

The experts report that just one in a thousand children under nine who show Covid symptoms would need hospital treatment, a figure that rises to three in a thousand for ten-to-19-year-olds.

That is still an order of magnitude lower than the four per cent rate for the general population, and the experts add: ‘Most of these children make a rapid recovery.’

Set against this tiny risk, the scientists say: ‘We are confident that multiple sources of evidence show that a lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.’

Pupils arrive at Kelso High School on August 11 on the Scottish Borders as schools in Scotland started reopening amid concerns about the safety of returning to the classroom during the coronavirus pandemic

Although the officers accept that ‘transmission of Covid-19 to staff members in school does occur’, they believe it to be largely ‘staff to staff’, which can be limited through ‘social distancing and good infection control’. 

They attempted to reassure staff by saying that the data points to teaching being a ‘lower risk profession’. 

The experts concede that the connections between households forged by schools returning, such as contact at the school gates or more people using public transport, ‘will put some upward pressure on transmission’ but said that ‘other work and social environments… are likely to be more important’.

However, their remarks came as coronavirus cases were reported in at least 41 schools in Berlin, two weeks after the city’s 825 schools reopened.

Last night, England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said that the ‘incredibly small’ health risks should be balanced against the overwhelming evidence ‘that not going to school damages children in the long run and that includes their long-term chances. 

It increases the risks of disparities, it entrenches deep-rooted problems, it increases the risk that they have mental and physical ill health in the long run.’

He added the transmission rates across the UK were broadly flat and said: ‘The evidence from other parts of the world is that, when schools have opened, this has not led to a sudden surge in transmission that looks as if it’s due to the schools opening.

Mr Whitty – who signed the statement with his colleagues from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and their total of eight deputies after considering a wide range of experts and research – also noted that there might have to be ‘other restrictions’ in local lockdowns in order to keep schools open.

He said: ‘We have to make really quite difficult choices. There are no easy choices in confronting coronavirus.’

Dr Patrick Roach of the NASUWT teachers’ union said: ‘The Chief Medical Officers’ statement has reinforced the critical importance of risk control measures. 

‘Governments across the UK must take steps to ensure that there are effective systems in place to monitor schools’ practices and to provide ongoing reassurance on safety after schools reopen.’ 

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