Coronavirus: 'National priority' to get children back to school but scientists warn it could require trade-offs

August 01, 2020

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth has said it is a "national priority" to get children back into the classroom, as scientists have warned there may have to be trade-offs for schools to reopen.

On Saturday afternoon the government said a total of 46,193 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus - a rise of 74 in 24 hours.

In the 24 hours to 9am on Saturday morning confirmed cases rose 771 to 303,952.

Mr Ashworth warned of the "long-term impact of children not being in school for months and months and months".

"It impacts their life chances, it impacts their learning and development, but also it's probably leading to lots of long-term health problems as well not connected to the virus," he said.

On Saturday afternoon the government said a total of 46,193 people had died in hospitals, care homes and the wider community in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus - a rise of 74 in 24 hours.

In the 24 hours to 9am on Saturday morning confirmed cases rose 771 to 303,952.

Most schools closed at the end of March as the UK went into lockdown although many remained open only for children of key workers and for vulnerable pupils.

More students were allowed to return to schools in England and Wales last month.

More than half of pupils struggled to learn at home during lockdown, according to an Office for National Statistics survey, raising concerns about the continued closure of schools.

The shadow health secretary said the government should use the next four weeks "wisely" to ensure schools can return in September.

"We've got to get our children back into school but that's why it makes it even more pressing that we use these four weeks in August to do all as we can as a nation to drive down this virus and prepare for the autumn," he said.

Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, warned on Friday that trade-offs may need to be made for all schools to reopen, saying the country has "probably reached near the limit or the limits" of what can be done to reopen society.

The government's scientific advisory group, SAGE, also said there needed to be "sufficient headroom" in the rate of COVID-19 infections.

Professor Graham Medley, a member of SAGE, said England may have to consider closing pubs so that schools could reopen.

When asked about Professor Whitty's comments, he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think that's quite possible.

"I think we're in a situation whereby most people think that opening schools is a priority for the health and wellbeing of children and that when we do that we are going to reconnect lots of households."

He added: "It might come down to a question of which do you trade off against each other and then that's a matter of prioritising, do we think pubs are more important than schools?"

Minutes released by SAGE reveal that school reopening has been discussed several times by the expert panel, with the group saying on 23 June that there "may be a need to change measures at the end of the summer in order to be able to keep R below 1 whilst proceeding with the planned reopening of schools".

However the group said the spread of coronavirus from children to adults "appears to be low" and outbreaks in schools "are extensions of community outbreaks and comprise small numbers, rather than indicating that schools are high-risk settings".

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There have been fears that a second wave could spread across the UK, and SAGE has warned it "does not have confidence" the R number is currently below the crucial figure of 1 in England.

The latest estimate puts the R number, which refers to the number of people on average that an infected person passes the virus on to, at between 0.8-0.9. However this refers to the transmission of coronavirus from several weeks ago.

Some local lockdown measures were announced in parts of the North West of England and areas of West Yorkshire this week, following a spike in infections.

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