Schools minister Nick Gibb issued the “direct” plea to youngsters, their parents and staff to plan school journeys without using public transport as the Government made it a national priority to get all pupils back into the classroom in September.
The return to school, and to work for many more adults, has particular challenges in London given the widespread use of public transport.
Speaking to the Evening Standard, Mr Gibb said: “In London, although Tubes, trains and buses have almost returned to full service with social distancing still in place, we need many people who would normally take public transport to consider an alternative.
“I am now making a direct appeal to every school staff member and student who lives or works in London: plan now how you will get to school or college, and if it is possible for you to walk or cycle rather than get the bus a few stops, please do.
“This is an opportunity for everyone who lives, works or travels to their education in London to pull together as a community and play their part in making sure everyone can get to school, college or work safely — and those seats in public transport are for those who really need them because of the distance they need to travel or because they are less able to find alternative ways to travel.”
Scientists are clear that the risk of transmission of coronavirus in and from primary schools is small. However, they are divided over how much secondary schools could fuel a rise in Covid-19. New daily positive cases have passed more than 1,000 for the first time since June, according to figures announced yesterday.
Ministers and other experts strongly believe that getting pupils back to school is in their interests, when balancing the Covid-19 risks and educational and social benefits, particularly for many youngsters from more deprived backgrounds.
Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s increasingly clear that older children, teenagers, probably transmit as much as adults but schools themselves play very little role.
“They are a closed setting but we see very few large outbreaks in schools and there is very little transmission from child to child, or child to adult.”
The professor of adolescent health at the UCL Institute of Child Health in London added: “Much of the transmission in schools is from adults bringing it in, particularly staff.”
Professor Neil Ferguson, who drew up a key report for the initial lockdown in March, believes reopening primary schools is unlikely to spark a rise in infections.
However, the professor of mathematical biology at Imperial College London raised concerns last week that if all pupils go back to secondary schools this could fuel the number of cases and push up the R number for infections by between 0.2 and 0.5.
Ministers are coming under growing pressure to introduce a regular testing regime in schools, but health minister Helen Whately said today the Government’s medical and scientific experts were not at the “moment” advising this.
There are widespread warnings, including from government scientific advisers, that the test and trace system needs to be improved rapidly or there might have to be “trade-offs” to keep schools open, such as closing pubs and non-essential shops.
Boris Johnson today visited the Premier Education Summer Camp at Sacred Heart of Mary Girls’ School in Upminster, where he tried his hand at archery. He also went to nearby St Joseph’s Catholic Primary School, where he saw how teachers had sought to make the premises Covid-safe.
The Prime Minister said he hoped schools would not have to close as a result of local action. “I very much hope that doesn’t happen for any pupils but clearly what we are doing … is to have local measures in place and local test and trace to introduce restrictions where that’s necessary. But the last thing we want to do is to close schools”