Professor Susan Michie tells LBC it’s wrong to say schools are ‘safe’

31 December 2020, 12:32 | Updated: 31 December 2020, 12:37

By Megan White

Professor Susan Michie has told LBC it is wrong to say schools are "safe" as millions of pupils face staying at home from January 4.

The member of Independent Sage and government adviser on Health Psychology told LBC's Matt Frei that "delays and last minute decisions" over whether schools would be open are "really difficult for everyone."

She said "many, many schools are unsafe" due to a lack of space for social distancing, a low teacher to student ratio and not enough hand sanitising or mask wearing.

Earlier on Thursday, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson told LBC's Andrew Castle that "schools are incredibly safe places."

Read more: Gavin Williamson refuses to rule out prosecutions for keeping kids at home during pandemic

But Prof Michie said "it is wrong to say schools are incredibly safe places."

Mr Williamson said he is "absolutely confident" there will be no further delays to school reopenings, after soaring coronavirus case rates in December forced the Government into a U-turn in pushing back the start of terms for millions of pupils.

On Wednesday, the Government announced primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week, with students in exam years returning to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11, while other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18.

The vast majority of primary schools will return on January 4 as planned.

The announcement, less than a week before the start of the new term, was described as a "last-minute mess" by teachers, who accused the Government of failing to heed warnings from school leaders that remote learning may need to be implemented.

Asked if the Government were doing enough to stop infections spreading in schools, Professor Michie said: "Well the situation isn't clear and yet again, we've got delays and last minute decisions, which is really difficult for everyone.

"Everybody wants children back at school, this is such a priority for the whole country.

"As has been said, it's good for their education, their mental health, their physical health.

"However, it is wrong to say schools are incredibly safe places.

"Some have had enough space that they have been able to make them safe, but many, many schools are unsafe.

"There isn't space for distancing, we have unregulated not enough teachers to children rations in classes - they're too big - so there's often complete chaos with people not wearing masks when they should be, there's not frequent hand sanitisers and procedures built into the day.

"And it's not only at school, it's also the travel to school - I've had many reports of tubes and buses in London being absolutely packed between 7am and 8am, and 3pm and 4pm.

"So that all has to be factored in, and if you look at the data in December, the transmission rates were high in school children of all ages, and more than 20 per cent of children were off in December."

Prof Michie continued: "That will only be worse in January, and if it's not planned, it's chaotic, and they don't have the support that's needed.

"So what we need now is a decision that children should get online education at home in a planned, high quality way, which means recruiting people to help with that.

"There were 750,000 volunteers, many of whom would be excellent at helping with online education, and we need January for the Government to invest in schools.

"They're not going to become safe on their own, they need resources, which includes additional unused buildings, so we can have spaced out children, the way other European countries managed to do, because they have much smaller classes and a higher teacher to child ratio."

Wednesday's U-turn was the latest made by Mr Williamson since the start of the pandemic, which also included the Government reversing its decision not to extend the children's food voucher scheme into the summer holidays, going back on a commitment that face coverings would not be necessary in schools, and delaying primaries' return dates after the first national lockdown.

Mr Williamson said his confidence also extended to schools' readiness to safely accept pupils back into the classroom by executing a mass testing programme on site.

This comes in spite of concerns from teachers about how testing will be conducted safely, and by whom.

He said £78 million of additional funding, equipment such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and support from the military would help them get mass testing programmes set up.

Mr Williamson said: "We really want to hold their hands, support them, help them. We're asking everyone right across the country to do pretty extraordinary things at the moment."

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, accused the Government of living "in a parallel universe".

He said: "It is asking them to recruit and train large numbers of staff, and set up testing centres in an incredibly short timeframe.

"The support it has announced is nowhere near being sufficient.

"Ministers need to remember that schools and colleges are educational institutions, not medical facilities, and it has to support this testing programme properly."

It came as Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons Education Select Committee, renewed calls for teaching staff to be made a priority for vaccinations against Covid-19.

Similar delays have been announced elsewhere across the UK.

In Northern Ireland, Education Minister Peter Weir said primary and secondary school pupils will be taught remotely for a week from January 4, before returning to the classroom, although pupils in years 8 to 11 will continue with online learning until the end of January.

But in Wales, Health Minister Vaughan Gething told the Welsh Parliament on Wednesday: "We still expect to return as planned, with a phased return to schools, together with the serial testing that we will be introducing."

In Scotland, the majority of pupils will be taught remotely from January 11, with face-to-face lessons from the following week.