Children 'more likely to get flu or be in car crash' than catch coronavirus at school, says government adviser

Ross McGuinness
·4-min read

Children are more likely to get the flu or be in a car crash than catch coronavirus in schools, a government adviser has said.

England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said pupils’ risk of catching the flu or being involved in a road accident are “higher” than contracting COVID-19 at school.

Her comments came as Boris Johnson urged parents to send their children back to school when they reopen next month.

The prime minister said the risk of children contracting coronavirus in school is “very small”.

On Monday, Dr Harries told Sky News: “The long-term harms of children not attending school significantly, we think, outweigh those potential risks.

Screen grab of Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (COVID-19).
England's deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the risk to children of catching coronavirus in school is 'very small'. (PA)

"No environment is completely risk-free. Every time a parent sends their child off to school pre-COVID they may have been involved in a road traffic accident, there are all sorts of things.

"In fact that risk, or the risk from seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of COVID."

She added: "Obviously, parents' worst nightmare would be the death of a child, and we know that is an exceptionally rare event.

"We also know that children very rarely get serious disease and get hospitalised, and when children do get infection it is usually very mild and sometimes asymptomatic.

"So overall, the risk to the child themselves is very, very small."

The UK’s chief medical officers have issued a joint statement seeking to reassure parents that it was safe to send their children back to school.

Dr Harries warned that teachers are more likely to contract COVID-19 on their coffee break than in a classroom.

“The transmission from younger children – when teachers are perhaps more likely to be closer to them – is much lower.

“Actually in the studies that have been done so far, the risk probably of transmission between staff, rather than to or from children, is the one that teachers perhaps should be focusing on – so it’s going off for a coffee break, you know, dropping your guard down.”

Dr Harries said a scenario where all schools across the country would be forced to close again was “unlikely”.

However, individual schools could close if they are in an area that is subject to a local lockdown, she said.

Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in Northern Ireland welcomed pupils again on Monday. English and Welsh schools will follow suit in September.

On Monday, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders’ union NAHT, said fining parents for not sending children back to school would not be helpful and would risk the relationships teachers have with families.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets veterans following the national service of remembrance marking the 75th anniversary of VJ Day at the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, Staffordshire.
Boris Johnson has urged parents to send their children back to school next month. (PA)

He told BBC Breakfast: “We can engage with those that still have a lack of confidence hopefully without fines.”

On Sunday, Johnson said: “As the chief medical officer has said, the risk of contracting COVID-19 in school is very small and it is far more damaging for a child’s development and their health and wellbeing to be away from school any longer.”

A Public Health England (PHE) analysis, published on Sunday, found there were 67 single confirmed cases, four “co-primary cases” (two or more linked cases diagnosed at the same time) and 30 outbreaks of COVID-19 in schools during June.

It said the majority of cases linked to outbreaks were in staff and warned that school staff needed to be “more vigilant for exposure outside the school setting to protect themselves, their families and the educational setting”.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Johnson’s commitment to get all children back to school was at “serious risk” after a “week of chaos” over exam results.

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