Schools cannot safely reopen on June 1, says 'Independent Sage' report

22 May 2020, 12:07

Sage says it is too early to reopen schools in the UK
The report by the 'Independent Sage' group found it to be too early to reopen schools in the UK. Picture: Getty
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The alternative SAGE committee of experts led by Sir David King today said in a report that schools cannot safely reopen on June 1.

The report claims that the "crucial factor" for allowing schools to reopen their doors to pupils is a "well-functioning local test, trace and isolate" system which, it stated, "will not be in place in England by early June."

"We strongly recommend that decisions on school opening be made at a local level, involving all stakeholders, to ensure there is support available as schools progress to full function," its authors wrote.

The report also states that the risk to children would be halved if ministers delayed their planned school opening date of June 1 by two weeks.

Official Sage scientific advice on reopening schools in England is expected to be released later this afternoon.

The report added: "We believe that decisions on school opening should be guided by evidence of low levels of Covid-19 infections in the community and the ability to rapidly respond to new infections through a local test, track and isolate strategy.

"There is no clear evidence that these conditions are met.

"Until they are it is not safe to open schools on 1 June."

Schools across the country have been closed to the majority of pupils since 20 March, just days before the UK officially went into lockdown.

The government planned to get children back into classrooms in England on 1 June, however many have expressed their concern about sending pupils back to school so soon.

Last week, Michael Gove reiterated the plan to reopen on 1 June if certain conditions are met.

However, that attracted both criticism and concern among staff, parents and healthcare workers about whether it will be safe to send children back to the classroom.

Across the country, many local authorities - including Hartlepool Council, Liverpool City Council and Slough Borough Council - have expressed they will defy the government and not let pupils back into schools until a later date.

Writing to parents via the Liverpool Express, Director of Children and Young People’s Services Steve Reddy said: "We will not be pressuring anyone to send their child to school since you know your children and personal situation best.

"Once you have all the information, you will be able to make an informed decision."

The British Medical Association added that schools should reopen "as soon as it's safe to do so."

In other countries, children have begun returning to classrooms with significant safety precautions taken beforehand.

School reopenings in Denmark were preceded by substantial investment in measures such as additional washing facilities to promote safety.

Other methods include staggering the opening by year groups, an idea considered by the UK Government, smaller class sizes, outdoor teaching and variable start times.

Social distancing measures and regular handwashing are also commonly practiced by teachers and pupils across the globe.

There is a debate in the scientific community over whether children can act as spreaders of coronavirus, due to the fact that it has so far appeared to affect them significantly less than adults.

The report explained that it "is difficult to assess the true risk of infected children transmitting the virus to other children and adults at school."

"Where there are ongoing new infections within the community, evidence suggests that re-opening schools could increase the spread of the virus, both in the school and the wider community, perhaps by up to 0.3 on R value.

"Other evidence from Asia, however, suggests that school closures have little impact on the rate of transmission.

"There have been recent reports of an upsurge of cases following the reopening of schools in France, South Korea and Denmark, leading to re-closing in some instances."

Reopening plans are different across the UK.

In Scotland, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon confirmed that schools will open from 11 August, with children returning to a "blended model of part-time in-school and part-time at-home learning."

The report added: "Delaying a school re-opening by two weeks (to 15 June) approximately halves the risk to children, and delaying the re-opening till September is less risky still."