Return to schools could be phased, deputy chief medical officer tells MPs

Camilla Turner
·3-min read
The locked gates of a school in Lewisham, south London. Schools in the capital may open earlier than those elsewhere, Dr Jenny Harries said - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe
The locked gates of a school in Lewisham, south London. Schools in the capital may open earlier than those elsewhere, Dr Jenny Harries said - Dan Kitwood/Getty Images Europe
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

The return to schools could be phased, the deputy chief medical officer has said, with children in some parts of the country going back sooner than their peers elsewhere.

Dr Jenny Harries said not all schools will be able to open after the February half-term because Covid infection rates still needed to be "observed and reviewed" over the coming weeks.

Dr Harries said that while it remains the "ambition" that schools open next month, the country has recently seen very high infection rates.

The deputy chief medical officer was speaking to MPs at an education select committee hearing on the science behind school closures.

Asked whether there will be a phased return to schools, she said it was "likely" that there will be "some sort of regional separation of interventions" following the national lockdown.

Hinting that schools in London may open earlier than those elsewhere, she suggested there are "some glimmers of hope" that transmission rates in the capital are falling, adding that this pattern "may move across the country".

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson announced that all primary and secondary schools must close until the February half-term at the earliest.

Watch: COVID-19 - Schools to get two weeks' notice before reopening - says Education Secretary Gavin Williamson

Dr Harries said it is "highly likely" that there will be different levels of infection in different areas when the country emerges from the national lockdown, adding: "As we had prior to the national lockdown, it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application [of restrictions].

"Clearly schools will be right at the top of the priority for trying to ensure that the balance of education and well-being is right at the forefront of consideration."

Asked whether schools remained on track to reopen after the February half-term, she said: "I think the ambition should always be that schools should be open wherever that is appropriate epidemiologically, because we know how important education is for children.

"We have recently seen very high rates of infection in our community, and of course we are trying to understand the implication of new variants of coronavirus. So I think with those caveats it's a timeframe that allows us to continue to monitor the infection rates and see the direction of travel – but it will continue to need to be observed and reviewed right up until that time period."

Osama Rahman, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Education, also refused to rule out the possibility of a return later than February half-term, telling MPs the Government will "continue to monitor" the situation and the "balance of risks" involved with children returning to school. He said ministers will "make a judgment based on evidence at the time".

MPs also asked about the extent to which Covid transmission takes place in schools, and Dr Harries said children "definitely can transmit infection in schools", just as they can in any environment.

But she added that schools are "not a significant driver as yet, as far as we can see, of large-scale community infections".

The deputy chief medical officer warned that it is "extremely difficult" to separate transmission that happens between children when schools are open – for example when they are socialising outside school – and transmission between children that takes place at school.

Watch: What you cand and can't do during England's third national lockdown