'I categorically denied it': Chris Whitty hits out at claims of tensions over Boris Johnson's lockdown rules

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 15: UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson (right) and UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty arrive for a Covid-19 media briefing at Downing Street on February 15, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prof Chris Whitty hit out at reports that he was resisting Boris Johnson’s plan to reopen schools. (Getty Images)

Chris Whitty has hit out at reports that he was resisting Boris Johnson’s plan to reopen schools.

Speaking at Monday’s Downing Street press conference, Prof Whitty said he had “categorically denied" the claims – before going on to set out why he supports the reopening of schools.

On Friday, The Guardian reported how England’s chief medical officer was “at odds” with the prime minister over the “big bang” reopening of all schools on 8 March, which Johnson eventually announced on Monday as the first part of his "road map" out of England's lockdown.

The same report carried a denial saying Prof Whitty did not oppose any of the school measures.

Watch: All school pupils in England to return from 8 March

Asked about the report at Monday’s briefing, he said: “I’d like to be reasonably unambiguous on the schools point. I was rather surprised to read what I read in one newspaper and then reported in others, since I categorically denied it to the journalists involved. But they still printed it so fine.”

Prof Whitty has also been on the record at a previous Downing Street briefing on 3 February as saying: “We consider school is a safe place for children to be as well as the right place for children to be.”

On Monday, he gave four reasons why he thinks schools should soon reopen:

1. 'Universally accepted'

Prof Whitty said: “It is absolutely universally accepted that there are huge advantages for children to be at school from a health point of view – mental and physical – as well as educational… if you keep children out of school, every single one of them you keep out of school is disadvantaged.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22: Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty speaks during a televised press conference at 10 Downing Street on February 22, 2021 in London, England. The prime minister announced a phased exit from the country's current lockdown measures, imposed before Christmas to curb a surge in covid-19 cases. (Photo by Leon Neal - WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prof Chris Whitty at Monday's Downing Street press conference. (Getty Images)

2. 'Incredibly low' COVID risk

Prof Whitty cited the “incredibly low” risk of children catching COVID-19, whether at school or not.

“Therefore we are confident that given the huge benefits of school, the very small residual risk is strongly in favour of children, primary or secondary, going to school.”

3. R rate 'headroom'

He cited the UK’s latest reproduction “R” rate of between 0.6 to 0.9, which being below 1.0 means the outbreak is not growing exponentially.

As a result, Prof Whitty said there is “headroom” to pursue the “first priority” of reopening schools.

He added there will be a “natural fire break” in the form of the Easter holidays from 29 March, which could mitigate any impact that reopening schools has on infections, while also pointing to the wider use of testing and masks in schools.

4. Relatively low risk for teachers

Prof Whitty pointed out: “Relative to many of the professions that continue to work through this, [such as] nurses and care home workers, teachers are not high risk professions in the way that those kinds of professions are high risk.”

Meanwhile, speaking at the same press conference, Sir Patrick Vallance, the government's chief scientific adviser, also said it is “crucial” that children get back to school, adding that the environment has been made “progressively more safe”.

He added: “We’ve got three weeks before a two-week holiday. This is the right thing to do and it’s right to get that as the top priority.”

Watch: What are the four stages of easing coronavirus restrictions?