Opening schools could fuel coronavirus spread, DfE adviser admits | Education

Reopening primary schools in England from the start of next month could fuel the spread of coronavirus, one of the government’s scientific advisers has admitted.

Osama Rahman, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education (DfE), appeared to undermine the government’s case for reopening schools when he gave evidence before the Commons science and technology committee on Wednesday.

Questioned by MPs, he admitted that a wider reopening of schools could bring together “hundreds of potential vectors” that could lead to the spread of the virus. He also said there was a “low degree of confidence” in studies suggesting children transmit Covid-19 any less than adults.

Asked whether there was a risk of the virus being transmitted when schools reopen, Rahman said there would always be a risk of transmission. “Even going to school anyway is not a risk-free environment,” Rahman said. “The question is to what extent is that risk acceptable.”

The leading scientific adviser raised eyebrows when he was unable to give a figure for deaths among under-18s from Covid-19, saying: “I don’t have those numbers to hand. It’s an important question.”

Carol Monaghan, a member of the committee, said: “As a former teacher listening to this, I don’t think the profession is going to be at all satisfied by what they are hearing at the moment.”

The government expects children in England to be able to return to nurseries, reception, year 1 and year 6 from 1 June at the earliest, and other primary year groups to return before the summer. The plans have been met with fierce opposition from education unions. Schools are currently only open to children of key workers and pupils classed as vulnerable.

Rahman told the committee there was little evidence to suggest children transmit the virus any differently to adults. “There are some studies which suggest that they might transmit it less than adults, but this evidence is mixed, it’s quite early, and so there is a low degree of confidence among Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] currently in the evidence which suggests that they might transmit it less.”

Monaghan then asked: “Since there is a low degree of confidence, we are potentially putting together hundreds of potential vectors that can then go on and transmit – is that correct?”

Rahman responded: “Possibly, depending on school sizes.”

Rahman’s evidence is likely to result in headteachers thinking again about reopening, throwing the government’s timetable into doubt. It will also raise questions about the DfE’s level of involvement in the decision-making process behind the reopening, after Rahman told MPs: “That was not a departmental decision, that was a cabinet decision following advice from Sage.”

Patrick Roach, the general secretary of the NASUWT, described Rahman’s evidence as shocking and disturbing. “The government has simply not provided a single shred of evidence that opening schools from 1 June will be safe for children or for teachers,” he said.

“Schools have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying. The government must now publish the scientific evidence it is relying on to claim that it will be safe for children to return to schools from 1 June.”

The DfE later posted a letter from Rahman on its Twitter account offering “some important points of clarification” following his appearance before the committee. He said he had “full confidence” in the government’s plans to reopen education institutions.

Source link