English schools' return could lead to new surge, experts warn

Hannah Devlin and Richard Adams
Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Opening schools to more children from Monday could lead to a new surge of infections of Covid-19 in the community, a group of independent scientists has warned.

The report, by the Independent Sage group, suggested that plans for whole classes to return to school in England on 1 June could increase the R-value of infections by 0.3 – potentially enough to put the country back on an ever increasing trajectory of infections.

The committee accused the government of not listening to its own scientific advice.

“This is just too early,” said Sir David King, a former government chief scientific adviser and the chairman of Independent Sage. “We know that … opening up schools has the potential to raise R by up to 0.3. So we are really concerned that the level of infectivity across the country as a whole is too high to open schools.”

King established the Independent Sage group to look at how the UK could work its way out of coronavirus lockdown after the government’s official panel of scientific advisers, Sage (the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) faced criticism over a perceived lack of transparency.

Delaying school openings by two weeks could halve the risk of infection, the report estimates, while waiting until September would reduce the risk further. The governments in Scotland and Northern Ireland have already announced that schools will not reopen to more pupils until after the August holidays, while Wales has said its schools will not do so on 1 June.

A delay would give more time for infections in communities to fall – but also for the track and trace system, launched on Thursday, to be more extensively tested before being relied on to keep new infections in check.

Prof Karl Friston, a computational modeller at University College London and a member of the Independent Sage committee said that opening schools without more robust surveillance could mean that new outbreaks would initially go unnoticed. “You will only know in your region several weeks or months after you have made a mistake, hence the importance of real-time data,” he said.

The government’s most recent estimates puts the R-value at between 0.7 and 0.9. Once R exceeds 1, the number of infections increases exponentially, while an R below 1 will lead to a decline.

The government’s official Sage committee has modelled the impact of seven ways schools could reopen, which all result in the R value increasing, with some scenarios increasing it only marginally. However, estimates at the upper end suggest it could increase by between 0.35 and 0.5. The Independent Sage report states that in the case where there are ongoing new infections within the community, evidence suggests that reopening schools could increase R “by up to 0.3”.

“The school reopening scenario chosen by the government is not one of those modelled by Sage, making the potential impact of reopening even more uncertain,” the Independent Sage report said. “Robust testing systems are not in place everywhere.”

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said the independent report cast further doubt over the government’s efforts to press ahead with the wider reopening of primary schools in England.

“The government’s primary duty should be to protect its people, but in England – unlike the rest of the UK – we are hurtling towards the further opening of schools before the scientific evidence says it is safe to do so,” Bousted said.

The report also urges authorities to consider outdoor teaching – in marquees and playgrounds – and to also run summer camps, with community playing fields and sports clubs requisitioned for teaching purposes, to help pupils catch up on their education during the summer holidays.

It also raises the prospect that asymptomatic children could become “institutional amplifiers”, spreading the virus unnoticed into the community and that there is heightened risk of the effects of the disease for families with children living in intergenerational households, or who come from a BAME or disadvantaged background.