Professor Neil Ferguson, who drew up a key report for the initial lockdown in March, stressed that the Government needed to “plan for all contingencies” with the looming return of all pupils to the classroom.
He believes primary schools can re-open with little threat of triggering a surge in coronavirus cases as evidence suggests there is limited transmission from young children.
However, he said there was “concern” with secondary schools, further education colleges and universities because it “looks like older teenagers can transmit just as well as adults”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE colleges, link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected.
“That poses a real risk of amplification of transmission, of case numbers going up quite sharply.”
The professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London explained that fully re-opening secondary schools could push up the R rate of transmission by between 0.2 to 0.5. “Given we’re at R equal to one at the moment, clearly we don’t want R going up to 1.5 or so, that would ... lead to quite rapid growth of the epidemic,” he added.
Professor Ferguson, who resigned from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies after his married lover breached social-distancing rules by visiting his home, believes it is likely that there will have to be “some tightening up” of restrictions if schools fully re-open and this, as expected, raises the R number.
It is likely that some form of those measures will be necessary to maintain control of transmission
“Whether in high schools, FE colleges, it is necessary for children to go back 100 per cent or whether we can have other alternative means of provision, children being in one week and out the other week, therefore reducing contacts in school and outside school, or whether we row back on the relaxation of restrictions in the rest of society to allow schools to be fully opened, for instance social venues, leisure venues, more working from home — those things,” he said.
“I mean that really is a policy decision, but I’m just saying, in my view, it is likely that some form of those measures will be necessary to maintain control of transmission.”
The number of Covid-19 cases is now rising in about half of local authority areas, with surveillance for the disease in the UK now comparable to the best countries in Europe, he added, given the huge ramping up of testing.
But the epidemic is expected to get worse in the autumn and winter, with more people staying indoors and the virus possibly finding it easier to spread in colder weather.
Worldwide it has already claimed the lives of 700,000 people.
Labour today said it would support pubs closing if the Government decided the move was necessary to re-open schools. The party is not pushing for pubs to shut but believes schools should be the priority.
Asked about Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield comment that pubs should close if necessary so that schools could re-open, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth told Sky News: “In that respect, schools must always come first.”
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Ministers should also consider whether older pupils should have to wear face masks in schools, he added.
Schools minister Nick Gibb would not be drawn on whether pubs could close, saying that the Government was taking a localised approach, working with local public health chiefs to tackle more “nuanced” situations and that schools would re-open in all areas.
“We’re very clear that all children will be returning to school in September, including in areas of local lockdown, such as Greater Manchester,” he said. “It is hugely important.”