Pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops should all close before schools during any local or national lockdown imposed to curb the spread of coronavirus, the children’s commissioner for England has said.
Arguing that children were too often treated as “an afterthought” during the first lockdown, Anne Longfield said if the country experiences a second wave of Covid-19 then youngsters must be “at the heart” of any government planning.
Publishing a briefing paper on putting children first in future lockdowns, she insisted that education must be prioritised over other sectors and be “first to open, last to close”.
“When only a limited amount of social interaction is feasible, the amount accounted for by education must be protected – at the expense of other sectors/activities,” the paper added.
Her remarks follow the release of a new study which analysed data from the first wave of Covid-19 and modelled the potential impact of schools in Britain reopening next month in order to understand how the virus can be kept under control.
Researchers at UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine concluded in the Lancet Child And Adolescent Health journal that with increased levels of testing and an effective track, trace and isolate system in place “an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
But they warned the government that reopening schools in September, alongside workplaces, without a scaled-up programme “could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave”.
The children’s commissioner believes reducing Covid-19 transmission in the community is important “but it should not be automatically assumed that this requires closing schools – except as a last resort”.
With rapid testing of pupils and teachers, any confirmed coronavirus cases and their close contacts can be isolated without necessarily having to send entire classes or year groups home, the briefing paper said.
It added that where children are required to work from home, the Department for Education must expand its free laptop programme to disadvantaged individuals and ensure have access to 4G wi-fi routers quickly.
“Too often during the first lockdown, children were an afterthought,” Ms Longfield argued. “Despite the welcome decision to keep schools open for vulnerable children, too few attended. The schools that did bring back more children before the summer holidays often found classes were only half-full. This must change in September.”
She added: “The government’s promise that all children will be back to school after the summer holidays is a step in the right direction. However, if a second wave occurs, children must be at the heart of coronavirus planning.
“That means schools must be the first to reopen and the last to close during any local lockdowns. Regular testing must be also in place for teachers and pupils, to reassure parents. If the choice has to be made in a local area about whether to keep pubs or schools open, then schools must always take priority.”
Echoing her view at the weekend, professor Graham Medley, who sits on the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), suggested pubs across the country may have to consider closing to enable schools to reopen in the autumn.
Earlier this week, however, No 10 played down suggestions pubs could be closed again by the government, telling reporters: “Our approach is a localised one, where you would assess the situation on the ground and take whatever steps were required to slow the spread of the virus. More broadly, we are committed to supporting the hospitality industry, which has had a very tough time.”
Speaking on Tuesday, minister Simon Clarke also told Sky News the return of schools next month is “not up for debate”, despite fears of a second wave of the virus this winter if children return to primaries and secondaries without an effective tracking system in place.
He 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.”