Sage expert: Opening schools all at once could push R rate above 1


pening schools all at once is likely to push the R rate above 1, an expert advising the government has warned.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said reopening on March 8 was likely to spark an exponential rise in coronavirus infections.

The government has pencilled the second week of March for all children to return to classrooms as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased.

Prof Edmunds told the Andrew Marr programme that a gradual reopening was less likely to spark a surge in cases.

He said he appreciated the “disruption” caused by the closure of schools but only caution would keep the virus under control.

His comments follow reports that chief medical officer for England Chris Whitty had clashed with Boris Johnson over the March 8 date as he considers it too soon.

Asked if he would be more comfortable opening primary schools and then secondary schools later, Prof Edmunds said: “Obviously I’m just sticking to the epidemiology rather than other needs. Of course there’s great needs to get our kids back in schools as fast as we can. But sticking to the epidemiology, yeah, of course, it’s always safer to take smaller steps and evaluate.”

The professor also said vaccinating all adults by the end of July will make a “huge difference” but cautioned the vaccine will not give 100% protection.

Mr Edmunds added: “If we eased off very rapidly now, we would get another surge in hospitalisations, so we have to ease very gradually.

“Otherwise we will put the health service under pressure again and we’ll get a surge in hospitalisations, and indeed deaths.”

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He said the South African variant is being “held in place now, as everything else is being held in place by the lockdown… The risk comes really when we release the lockdown.” However, the professor was upbeat about mixing outdoors saying “mixing outside is pretty safe.”

The government was yesterday forced to deny that the Prime Minister and Chris Whitty had disagreed over the March 8 after reports claimed the chief medical officer was “very unhappy” about the decision.

Sources told the Guardian that Mr Whitty was “lukewarm” at best over the plan believing the date to be premature.

Meanwhile Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said he wanted all pupils in England back in school on March 8, despite calls from education unions for a phased return.

He told Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday that more coronavirus testing and “Nightingale classrooms” could address some of the issues.

Sir Keir said: “Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8 and all children back into schools on March 8.

“I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger.”


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