19/05/2020 13:18 BST | Updated 19/05/2020 13:42 BST

Ministers Not Scientists Will Decide When To Open Schools, Points Out Coronavirus Adviser

Professor John Edmunds says politicians must make the choice, after cabinet minister suggests scientists gave government the "wrong" advice.

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Any decision to reopen schools will be a “political” one for ministers, not a “scientific” one, a leading expert who advises the government on coronavirus has said.

John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said on Tuesday said it appeared that the “risk to children is low”.

But he added more will be known in the coming weeks about whether children can pass the virus on to teachers as data from countries that have already opened schools becomes available.

It comes after Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, said if the government had made mistakes in tackling the virus it was because it had received the “wrong” scientific advice.

The government is engaged in a row with unions and some local authorities over when schools in England should reopen to more primary school pupils.

Boris Johnson has set an expectation that reception, Year 1 and Year 6 children in England will return to the classroom on June 1.


Speaking to the House of Lords science and technology committee today, Edmunds said: “Clearly the decision to open primary schools or not, is a political one, it’s not a scientific decision. Scientists can offer some advice.

“It looks like the risk to children is low, and that the vast majority don’t have significant symptoms.”

Edmunds sits on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) committee of experts that advises the government.

He said: “So the risk to others may be relatively low, but overall you have to weigh up those risks with other things – risks to community, clearly we can’t keep children off school forever, and so on and so forth.

“The actual decision, and weighing all of those things, needs to be done by politicians.”

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has said that children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds will lose out if they are unable to return to school.

“Teachers know that there are children out there that have not spoken or played with another child their own age for the last two months,” he told the Downing Street press conference on Sunday.

“They know there are children from difficult or very unhappy homes for whom school is the happiest moment in their week, and it’s also the safest place for them to be.”

An alliance of education unions has urged the government to “step back” from the June 1 date and demanded to see the scientific and medical modelling used to justify the move.

And Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson has said he would not allow his local schools to readmit pupils if he felt the safety of staff and youngsters would be put at risk.

Teachers this week told HuffPost UK about the “chaos” that the June 1 date had left schools facing, with contradictory advice and “impossible” social distancing rules leaving school leaders perplexed and anxious.