A group of senior scientists has warned that 1 June is too soon for schools to reopen safely in England and that more time is needed to set up an effective track and trace system to contain future outbreaks.
The Independent Sage committee, which is separate from the government’s official advisers and is chaired by the former government chief scientist Sir David King, says new modelling of coronavirus shows the risk to children will be halved if they return to school two weeks later than ministers propose. Delaying until September would further reduce the risk.
“It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike,” Prof King said.
In a draft consultation published on Friday, the experts say local authorities must demonstrate low levels of infection and an ability to contain new infections before schools are reopened, with public consultation a vital part of the decision-making process.
The report urges authorities to consider summer camps and outdoor schools for educating children, with community playing fields and sports clubs requisitioned for teaching purposes.
King said the decision of when to reopen schools was a “careful balance” but added it was vital for young people to get back to the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so. “The current climate is likely to disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in society, therefore it is vital that the government also considers innovative ways to help those who need it most.”
King established the Independent Sage committee amid concerns over the lack of transparency around scientific advice reaching ministers from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), co-chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “Support for a fixed date for school return is vanishing quickly. What is needed now is local flexibility to determine when it is right for schools to open up to more pupils, informed by evidence of what is happening in their local area.”
The Independent Sage committee will host an online discussion at midday on Friday for teachers, parents, children and union representatives in association with the British Medical Journal and Mumsnet. It will be broadcast on the Independent Sage YouTube channel, the committee’s Facebook page, on Twitter via @independentSAGE and @Sir_David_King, and on the BMJ’s home page.