Opening all schools on 8 March ‘reckless’, NERVTAG scientist tells LBC

21 February 2021, 11:43 | Updated: 21 February 2021, 11:45

By Joe Cook

Returning all students to the classroom on 8 March would be ‘reckless’, a member of the government’s NERVTAG advisory group, has told Swarbrick on Sunday.

Professor Andrew Hayward, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, told LBC there is still “quite a long way to go” before the most vulnerable were all vaccinated.

Responding to reports that the government may shelve a phased reopening of schools in favour of a ‘big bang’ approach, Prof Hayward warned this “will lead to a lot of transmission amongst school children, which will spread up the age groups”.

“I think opening all schools completely on March 8 is reckless in the current circumstances,” he added.

“There are still very many people out there who are vulnerable to getting severe disease.

“Also, even in the older age groups, although the overall uptake is very high, there are areas of the country where perhaps only 60 percent of over 70s are vaccinated as yet.”

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The top University College London epidemiologist also revealed to Tom Swarbrick that models seen by NERVTAG and SAGE suggested there was “a substantial chance of hospitals becoming overwhelmed in certain areas” if lockdown is eased “too quickly”.

He added: “I think it is a tradeoff... between how many hospitalisations and deaths you are prepared to accept and also a tradeoff of if you really want these to be irreversible changes or not.

“I think the faster you unlock the more likelihood is you will need to reverse."

Prof Hayward's comments follow reports in The Guardian that Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty is “very unhappy” about all schools reopening at once.

Unions have also shot down the idea, with nine teachers’ and head teachers’ organisations issuing a joint statement on Friday, calling for a more cautious approach.

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Prof Hayward told LBC he would prefer a phased approach: “In particular I think I would start with primary schools rather than secondary schools, because the evidence seems to suggest they have less impact on community transmission.

“Obviously there is a lack of clarity about exams, but those students who have exams coming up are particularly important.

“I would be thinking about how one can potentially, for example, use rotas and testing to minimise the risk.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to announce his roadmap out of lockdown on Monday at around 3.30pm, in a statement to Parliament.

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Despite the warnings from scientists, there may be crossparty support for all schools returning on 8 March.

On Sunday, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he would “like to see all schools back open on March 8 and all children back into schools on March 8”.

The government will have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, "but that's what we should be working towards”, he added.