The UK’s chief medical officers today warn the corona R rate could leap above 1 when kids return to school – fuelling fears of more local lockdowns.
Professor Chris Whitty and his colleagues stressed there were “no risk-free options” and that sending pupils back to class had to be weighed up against keeping them away.
The R, or reproduction, number is scientists’ way of rating a disease’s ability to spread.
If it goes above 1 it means each person with the virus will infect more than one other, reversing the downward trend seen lately.
And that could mean the nation would have to brace itself for more local lockdowns with pubs, restaurants and shops having to shut all over again after only just reopening.
In a joint statement Prof Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer for England, and Britain’s three other equivalent experts say the benefits of getting children back to school after nearly six months of absence outweigh the dangers.
They say: “Lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.
“It is possible that opening schools will provide enough upward pressure on R that it goes above 1 having previously been below it, at least in some local areas.”
The infection risk for children is low but with 453,000 teachers returning to work and parents gathering at school gates scientists say spikes are inevitable.
The statement is signed by Prof Whitty and Dr Frank Atherton, Dr Gregor Smith and Dr Michael McBride, the CMOs for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In a TV interview today Prof Whitty says that would mean localised shutdowns with certain businesses closing – a move that cost Leicester £10million.
Prof Whitty added: “If it was shops in a particular area we would look at shops. If it was hospitality, we would look at hospitality. We’re trying to keep transmission rates low and do the least social and economic damage.”
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The R rate is now between 0.8 and 1.1 in London, the North West and South West.
Sources said another national shutdown was on the cards despite Boris Johnson ruling that out last month.
Way back in April, as the R number began to drop, the PM said it must stay below 1 for the UK to avoid the “disaster” of a second virus peak.
He said then that keeping the rate down “is going to be absolutely vital to our recovery”.
In June, as further lockdown measures were eased, he said: “This is a nasty virus still that wants to take advantage of our carelessness. I’m afraid there will be local outbreaks.”
The Sunday Mirror has also revealed predictions by former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King of another UK-wide lockdown if schools return without proper test and trace.
Leicester, Luton, parts of Greater Manchester, East Lancashire, Preston, West Yorkshire and Aberdeen have already had restrictions imposed.
Birmingham, Barnsley, Bury, Stoke, Wigan, Coventry, Northampton, and Richmond-upon-Thames are among those now on the watchlist.
Most of England’s 32,000 schools will begin a phased return a week tomorrow.
Children aged five to seven will be kept in class bubbles of 30 – up from the previous 15 – but there is no limit on class sizes above that age group.
Older children will be in year bubbles and split up for teaching in individual subjects without mixing with other year groups. Equipment will be washed, children will sit at forward-facing desks and mobile testing units can be called in to deal with outbreaks.
The Association of School and College Leaders warned that if corona strikes, students might have to be taught on a week-on, week-off basis.
The union’s Julie McCulloch accused the Government of lacking “a Plan B”.
Heads have complained that the guidance on reopening is not clear enough and university-level research suggests that without adequate contact-tracing schools would contribute to a second wave even larger than the first.
Lib Dem Education boss Layla Moran called on Boris Johnson to sack Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to restore confidence among parents, pupils and teachers.
And she added: “Most importantly, the Government must fix the failing test and trace system and show it is keeping this pandemic under control.”
Ex-Tory minister David Davis appealed for Mr Johnson to get a grip, saying: “We don’t need to be world-leading. We just need to be competent.”
- The UK will live under Covid restrictions for at least nine more months, Prof Chris Whitty will say today. He believes there is little chance of a vaccine breakthrough before Christmas – and our best hope now is of finding one before winter 2021.