Schools fully reopening in England next month is “not up for debate”, a government minister has insisted amid warnings that without a scaled-up test and trace programme the country could experience a second wave of coronavirus infections.
Simon Clarke, a housing minister, said it was “an absolute priority” to get children back to schools in the autumn – seven months after Boris Johnson ordered the closure of all primary and secondaries to curb the spread of the virus.
His remarks followed the publication of a new study in the Lancet Child And Adolescent Health, which analysed data from the first wave of Covid-19 and modelled the potential impact of schools in Britain reopening in September to understand how the virus can be kept under control.
The researchers, from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said that with increased levels of testing and effective contact tracing “an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
However, they warned: “Reopening schools fully in September, alongside reopening workplaces in society, without an effective test, trace, isolating (TTI) strategy could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave.”
“Currently, TTI is not achieving the levels that we modelled. Looking at the NHS reports from the TTI system, it looks like it’s about 50 per cent coverage.”
Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, a lecturer in mathematical modelling at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, UCL and lead author of the study, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that if test and trace is “not done effectively, then there is a risk of an occurrence of a second wave later this year”.
Pressed on the study, Mr Clarke told Sky News: “It’s obviously vital that we always continue to keep up the progress that we’re making with test and trace, which is a massive national undertaking and it is working, I really would emphasise that.”
The housing minister said over 184,000 people have so far been contacted by the NHS test and trace programme after a contact tested positive for the virus.
He added: “Those people have been allowed to self-isolate, be removed from the community at a time where they could be at risk of spreading the virus and that’s obviously a massive success.
“We reach over 80 per cent of positive test results and we contact over 75 per cent of their close contacts. So this is a programme, which is delivering and which is helping to keep us all safer. There’s always more to do, we continue to work very hard to boost our testing capacity – we’re on track to deliver half a million be the end of October.
“But one thing is clear: schools are going to reopen in full in autumn, that is not up for debate.”
Speaking in the Commons after the decision to drop the target of returning all primary school children back to classrooms before the summer holidays, Boris Johnson said “primary and secondary education will recommence in September with full attendance”.
No 10 yesterday reiterated the prime minister’s commitment, adding: “That’s vital for their education and development. We are planning for all pupils to return to school full-time from the beginning of the autumn term.”
Mr Clarke added: “There’s nothing gung-ho about getting schools back. There is little doubt about the major damage that it does to children’s education not to be in school. We’ve lost half a year now to this virus and some children’s education and it’s disrupted every child’s education.
“It’s an absolute priority that we get on with this, it is a basic matter of social justice, there is a generation of children whose performance will be inhibited throughout the rest of their time in education unless we get this right and we’re confident that we can.”
Speaking to Times Radio, former prime minister Tony Blair also urged the government to appoint a senior minister to be put in charge of testing, adding: “From the very beginning mass testing has been the only thing that gets you through this.
“It allows you to avoid the severity of the very blunt instrument of lockdown and gets you to a place where you can more or less get your economy moving while you contain this disease.”