Closing all schools may not be a “sufficient” measure to control the new Covid-19 variant, the government’s scientific advisers have said.
Documents show members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) advised on December 22 that it is “highly unlikely” that the outbreak’s growth can be suppressed if schools remain fully open.
At the time, ministers were engaged in battle with council leaders to keep schools open – with the government even threatening legal action if they shut early ahead of Christmas.
On Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson announced around a million primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week. But critics raised concerns about schools staying open in areas where the disease is running rampant.
The advisory group notes that the R rate may not drop – and remain – below one even with full lockdown and closure of all schools because of the contagious new mutation.
“It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant,” the scientists said.
“R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.”
The minutes added: “It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant.”
It comes as the leaders of London councils where primary schools have been asked to return on Monday have urged the government to rethink the decision.
In a letter to Williamson, they expresses concern about why schools in some boroughs in the capital will stay open while those in neighbouring postcodes will close.
The government announced on Wednesday that primary school pupils in some of the areas hardest hit by Covid-19 will not return to their desks as planned next week, with students in exam years returning to secondary schools a week later than planned, from January 11. Other secondary and college students will go back full-time on January 18.
A list of 50 areas where it is expected that some primary schools will not open as planned to all pupils next week was published by the Department for Education and featured council areas in London, Essex, Kent, East Sussex, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire.
But schools in 10 London boroughs will remain open under government plans, despite London being under Tier 4 restrictions following a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Earlier this month, Greenwich and Islington councils rowed back on their advice for pupils to be taught online in the last few days of term before Christmas amid rising Covid-19 cases in the capital.
Waltham Forest Council said schools in the north London borough had been threatened with potential legal action by the government if they followed the council’s advice to shift learning online.
Redbridge said it would support a switch to online learning as schools faced “huge strain” due to the impact of local coronavirus cases. All four are Labour-run authorities.
Leader of Islington Council Richard Watts said it was “vital” London was “treated as one” as so many pupils and school staff travel between boroughs.
“The stated reasons why some boroughs have been excluded simply don’t add up with the data we have,” he wrote on Twitter.
“It’s clearly right that we must do everything we can to safely keep children in school but, given the extreme increase in infections in London at the moment, a circuit break for schools will cut infection and means fewer pupils having to isolate.”