Expert warns schools may have to close to control Covid outbreak

Could schools be next? SAGE expert warns classrooms may have to close to control Covid as Michael Gove insists they WILL stay open during winter lockdown – and Kier Starmer agrees despite backlash from unions

  • Top scientists Sir Mark Walport and Sir Jeremy Farrar have warned that lockdown restrictions may need amending as schools staying open could be problematic
  • Meanwhile, Michael Gove said schools would not close under any circumstances
  • It comes as Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted schools should remain open despite education unions calling for them to be closed during national lockdown 

Keeping schools open during the November lockdown in England could mean infection rates stay higher for longer than when nationwide restrictions were first introduced in March, a leading scientist has warned.

Former chief scientific adviser Sir Mark Walport said the new restrictions were not as ‘severe’ as the first time round, and that there was a ‘possibility’ the restrictions may need to stay in place for more than four weeks.

In an interview with Sky’s Sophy Ridge On Sunday, he warned: ‘It’s unlikely this time to come down quite as fast as it did during the first lockdown because we have got schools open.’

His comments were echoed by Sir Jeremy Farrar, a member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who said transmission in secondary schools is ‘high’.

He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: ‘The big difference to the first lockdown is that schools remain open.

‘Because we have delayed the onset of this lockdown it does make keeping schools open harder.

‘We know that transmission, particularly in secondary schools is high.

SAGE adviser Sir Jeremy Farrar has said the Government may have to reconsider keeping schools open during lockdown if the transmission rate in secondary schools doesn’t drop

‘Personally I think this is definitely the lockdown to put in place now but if that transmission, particularly in secondary schools, continues to rise then that may have to be revisited in the next four weeks in order to get R below one and the epidemic shrinking.’

The National Education Union has called for the Government to close schools and colleges with the introduction of new national restrictions in England, saying that not doing so will mean the measures are less effective.

Its joint general secretary Kevin Courtney said: ‘We think it is a real missed opportunity, it’s another half measure and, without school closures as part of it, it is unlikely to have the effect that the Prime Minister wants.’

But Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove suggested the Government wanted to keep pupils in classrooms even if it meant extending the lockdown.

‘I don’t believe it would be that case, but I do believe that we want to keep schools open and I believe that the measures that we are putting in place will enable us to do so,’ he told Marr.

Labour has said it supports keeping schools open, with party leader Sir Keir Starmer saying they ‘must stay open but we’ve got to manage the risk’.

Michael Gove, pictured on the Andrew Marr Show, has guaranteed schools will not close under any circumstances as part of the national lockdown despite concerns from SAGE experts

The Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted that classrooms must not close when England shuts up shop for four weeks from Thursday despite calls from unions that they should close

Sir Keir Starmer put himself on a collision path with teaching unions today saying schools must stay open during the next lockdown for the good of the children.

The Labour leader insisted that classrooms must not close when England shuts up shop for four weeks from Thursday.

Boris Johnson announced that schools, colleges and universities would be exempt from the four-week shutdown that starts on Thursday.

Schools will be responsible for ensuring they are implementing Covid-secure practices such as staggered break times, one way systems and mask-wearing in hallways.

Similarly, universities will also be allowed to remain open with social distancing measures in place and a mix of online and face-to-face tuition where it is safe to do so.

Students will be expected to adhere to lockdown rules while on campus and only leave their homes for permitted reasons such as for educational purposes.

It has yet to be confirmed whether students will be allowed to go home for the Christmas period. 

Last night the National Education Union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney called for schools to be included in the new lockdown restrictions and said it would be a ‘mistake’ to allow them to remain open.

And the University and College Union (UCU) said it would be ‘incomprehensible’ if teaching continued in person during the new lockdown.

Told of Mr Courtney’s view on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show today, Mr Starmer said: ‘I want schools open, I think the harm to children from being out of school is too high – we have to manage the risk but it is a priority to keep schools open.

‘We need to make sure that they are as safe as possible. The government should put in place effective testing at school.

‘Put children, teachers and staff at the front of the queue in the same way as NHS staff to make sure we control it.’

National Education Union’s joint general secretary Kevin Courtney called for schools to be included in lockdown restrictions and said it would be a ‘mistake’ to allow them to remain open

Jo Grady (pictured) of the University and College Union (UCU) said it would be ‘incomprehensible’ if teaching continued in person during the new lockdown

Mr Courtney said not including schools and colleges in new lockdown measures would likely lead to the need for even longer lockdowns in future.

‘The latest figures from the ONS estimate that 1 per cent of primary pupils and 2 per cent of secondary pupils have the virus and that these levels have increased dramatically since wider opening in September,’ he said.

‘NEU analysis of ONS figures shows that virus levels are now nine times higher amongst primary pupils and an astonishing 50 times higher amongst secondary pupils.

‘The National Education Union called for a two-week circuit break over half-term to include schools, which the Wales Government and the Northern Ireland assembly have done – but the Government in Westminster has ignored this call.

‘More severe measures are now called for as a result, the Government should not make this mistake again.

‘The Government should include all schools in proposals for an immediate national lockdown and as a minimum be preparing for school rotas at the end of that period, including by actually meeting its promise to deliver broadband and equipment to those children who do not have them.

‘It is also vital that the Government ensure proper financial support for all those affected by lockdown including crucial supply teachers and other staff.’

Teaching unions are already calling for schools to shut in defiance of Boris Johnson’s insistence on Saturday that they will remain open during a new national lockdown

Today, the NEU announced that more than 100,000 teaching and support staff had backed their call to close the schools.

Their demand was echoed by Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham who said schools should close as part of the national lockdown.

During a joint press conference with Liverpool City Region Mayor Steve Rotheram, Mr Burnham said sending children to school, then sending them home ‘isn’t great’ and it causes more harm to the children.

According to the Manchester Evening News, he added that the government should reverse the cuts it made to schools and make digital teaching widely available.

Mr Rotheram said the Government had told northern leaders that 25 per cent of infections were transmitted in education settings – the same proportion as the hospitality setting.

Mr Burnham added it was ‘really important’ that the decision to keep schools and universities open should not just be accepted and that it needed to be debated in parliament. 

Mayor of Manchester Andy Burnham agrees with education unions that the schools and universities should be closed as part of the national lockdown restrictions due on Thursday

He also called on the Government to listen to Marcus Rashford and providing free school meals.

Meanwhile, figures put together by the UCU suggest that there have been more than 35,000 cases on campuses since term started last month.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: ‘The health and safety of the country is being put at risk because of this government’s insistence that universities must continue with in-person teaching.

‘It would be incomprehensible if universities were allowed to continue to do this after the outbreaks we have seen on campuses across the country this term.

‘Ministers must tell universities to move all non-essential in-person teaching online as part of any national lockdown.’

The body has been campaigning for a total shift online for some time, and previously launched a petition demanding that the switch was made ‘where possible’.

 Announcing the new lockdown Boris Johnson said that the clinical advice was that school was the best place for children to be.

He said: ‘Our senior clinicians still advise that school is the best place for children to be. 

‘We cannot let this virus damage our children’s futures even more than it has already and I urge parents to continue taking their children to school. 

‘I’m extremely grateful to teachers across the country for their dedication in enabling schools to remain open.’

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England said the suggestion that schools would remain open was ‘very welcome’ and said it would be a ‘disaster’ if they were to close

Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said it is ‘very welcome’ that schools would remain open and added it would have been a ‘disaster’ if they were to close. 

Her comments were echoed by the prominent headmistress Katharine Birbalsingh, who said it was ‘wonderful’ that schools will remain open.

Ms Longfield wrote on Twitter ahead of the widely expected announcement: ‘Suggestions that schools will stay open during a forthcoming lockdown are very welcome. 

‘We’ve always said that schools should be the last to shut & first to open. It would be a disaster for children’s well-being and education if they were to close.’ 

She added that schools have been able to stay open since September because of the ‘fantastic work’ they and teachers have taken to make them ‘Covid secure’. 

‘Our survey of children showed children were delighted to be back at school, felt safe, and understood all the rules,’ she said.

And Ms Birbalsingh, who is headmistress of top-performing Michaela Community School in Wembley, north-west London, also welcomed the news.

She told MailOnline: I think it’s wonderful that the schools are staying open. 

‘All children have suffered in terms of their learning but all the more so the disadvantaged and without schools being open I really fear for their welfare.

‘It is essential to keep them open. I’m very grateful that they remain open not just for the sake of the children but for my own sake. I get to work every day and i love that.

‘Well I suppose the unions will do what the unions do and the rest of us will get on with the job.’

Speaking of her own pupils, many of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, Ms Birbalsingh said they ‘suffered’ earlier this year when schools were closed.

‘We did Zoom lessons, we did video lessons, we used google classroom, our chlidren completed the work and attended the lessons.

Katharine Birbalsingh,  the headmistress of top-performing MIchael Community School in Wembley, north-west London, told MailOnline it was ‘wonderful’ that schools will remain open

The NEU said not including schools would likely lead to the need for longer lockdowns in future. Pictured: a member of staff wearing PPE tests a student’s temperature as they arrive

‘But when they returned, you can’t test them on Zoom, it just meant that even though they were supposedly doing the work, but it wasn’t sticking and so it meant they had made very little progress, despite all of the boxes being ticked,’ she added.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson previously suggested students may be required to self-isolate at the end of the current university term in order to safely return home to be with their families at Christmas. 

Earlier this week it was reported that more than half of secondary schools have pupils self-isolating as a result of Covid-19.

About 6 per cent to 7 per cent of state school pupils did not attend class for coronavirus-related reasons on October 22, according to the Department for Education (DfE) statistics.

Approximately 26 per cent of schools, excluding those on half-term, said they had one or more pupils self-isolating due to potential contact with a Covid-19 case at school, compared with 21% the week before.

This represents 55 per cent of secondary schools and 20 per cent of primary schools.   

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