'Very, very, very small' risk of kids catching Covid in schools, PM reassures parents

24 August 2020, 10:06

Boris Johnson says a lost education is 'far more damaging' than Covid-19
Boris Johnson says a lost education is 'far more damaging' than Covid-19. Picture: Downing Street
EJ Ward

By EJ Ward

Boris Johnson has sought to reassure parents that the risk of children getting Covid-19 as they return to school is "very, very, very small".

Earlier Mr Johnson issued a plea to parents to send their children back to the classroom when schools reopen next month warning their life chances were at risk should they not return.

The PM said the risk of contracting coronavirus in schools is "very small", and that pupils face greater harm by continuing to stay at home.

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In a video posted on Twitter, the Prime Minister said: "It's absolutely vital that pupils get back into school in September.

"It's vital for their education, it's vital for their welfare, it's vital for their physical, and indeed, their mental wellbeing. So let's make sure that all kids, all pupils, get back to school at the beginning of September."

Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of keyworkers.

Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in Northern Ireland will welcome pupils again on Monday. English and Welsh schools will follow suit in September.

Mr Johnson continued: "I think parents are genuinely still a bit worried about their children contracting coronavirus. All I can say is the risks are very, very, very small that they'll even get it, but then the risk that they'll suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very small indeed.

"I think it's vital that parents understand that schools are safe and that teachers have gone to great lengths to get schools ready. They've been doing it all throughout the pandemic, by the way.

"Lots of schools have been open and looking after kids very, very successfully and will take steps to ensure that groups aren't mixed up, that we have washing of hands and all the other disciplines you need to prevent spread of the virus."

His comments came after 22 cases were linked to a school in Scotland, with 17 members of staff, two pupils and three community contacts testing positive as part of a cluster at Kingspark School.

17 members of staff, two pupils and three community contacts have been traced to a cluster at Kingspark School in Dundee.

NHS Tayside has advised staff to self-isolate from the last day they attended the site, with pupils told to self-isolate for two weeks from August 20.

They also said anyone who lives with a pupil, such as parents, carers or siblings, should self-isolate for 14 days if they are unable to maintain physical distancing within the household from August 20.

Cases have been linked to two other schools in Dundee, with one at the Primary 2A class at St Peter and Paul’s School in Dundee and another linked to Happy Times out-of school club at Downfield Primary School.

His comments come after the UK's chief medical officers issued a joint statement seeking to reassure parents that it was safe to send their children back to school.

They said "very few, if any" children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school, while there was a "certainty" of harm from not returning.

A Public Health England (PHE) analysis, published on Sunday, found there were 67 single confirmed cases, four "co-primary cases" (two or more linked cases diagnosed at the same time) and 30 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools during June.

It said the majority of cases linked to outbreaks were in staff and warned that school staff needed to be "more vigilant for exposure outside the school setting to protect themselves, their families and the educational setting".

The analysis also said further school closures may be necessary in regions with increasing community infection but this should "be considered only in extremis".

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Dr Shamez Ladhani, paediatric infectious diseases specialist at PHE, who headed the monitoring of England's schools, told The Times: "We need to educate the educators.

"There's a clear need for a duty of care outside the school setting so staff need to protect themselves, and in turn other staff and pupils."

He added: "Staff are very good at social distancing and infection control in the classroom, but upon leaving the school environment these measures are more likely to be broken, potentially putting themselves and their colleagues at risk."

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Education unions have called for greater clarity on how schools should handle a spike in coronavirus cases.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: "Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening.

"It needs to cover advice to heads about the protections needed for staff in high-risk categories if infection rates rise."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson's commitment to get all children back to school was at "serious risk" after a "week of chaos" over exam results.

On Sunday, the Education Secretary defended a trip to see "family in Scarborough" after reports he visited the seaside resort for a holiday the week before the A-level results fiasco.

Mr Williamson wrote on Twitter: "I cancelled our family holiday abroad this year to focus on the challenges Covid-19 created for the education sector.

"Over the summer, I went to see family in Scarborough for the first time since lockdown, and while there I was in constant communication with the Department."

Mr Johnson is expected to return to Westminster this week after he ended his summer holiday in Scotland, with his fiancee Carrie Symonds and son Wilfred, early.

He faced criticism for defying calls to cut the break short amid the results chaos, but returned after pictures of the family's holiday cottage were published.