Scientists warn 1 June is too early for schools to reopen in England

Independent Sage committee says more time is needed to set up coronavirus track and trace

Galleywall primary school in London
The group of scientists say modelling shows the risk to children will be halved if they return to school two weeks later than ministers propose. Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images

A group of senior scientists has warned that 1 June is too soon for schools to reopen safely in England and that more time is needed to set up an effective track and trace system to contain future outbreaks.

The Independent Sage committee, which is separate from the government???s official advisers and is chaired by the former government chief scientist Sir David King, says new modelling of coronavirus shows the risk to children will be halved if they return to school two weeks later than ministers propose. Delaying until September would further reduce the risk.

The extra two weeks would allow more time for infections to fall in the community and for crucial track and trace capacity to be built up so new cases are found and isolated fast.

???It is clear from the evidence we have collected that 1 June is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike,??? Prof King said.

Q&A

What is contact tracing?

Contact tracing is one of the most basic planks of public health responses to a pandemic like the coronavirus. It means literally tracking down anyone that somebody with an infection may have had contact with in the days before they became ill. It was ??? and always will be ??? central to the fight against Ebola, for instance. In west Africa in 2014-15, there were large teams of people who would trace relatives and knock on the doors of neighbours and friends to find anyone who might have become infected by touching the sick person.

Most people who get Covid-19 will be infected by their friends, neighbours, family or work colleagues, so they will be first on the list. It is not likely anyone will get infected by someone they do not know, passing on the street.

It is still assumed there has to be reasonable exposure ??? originally experts said people would need to be together for 15 minutes, less than 2 metres apart. So a contact tracer will want to know who the person testing positive met and talked to over the two or three days before they developed symptoms and went into isolation.

South Korea has large teams of contact tracers and notably chased down all the contacts of a religious group, many of whose members fell ill. That outbreak was efficiently stamped out by contact tracing and quarantine.

Singapore and Hong Kong have also espoused testing and contact tracing and so has Germany. All those countries have had relatively low death rates so far. The World Health Organization says it should be the ???backbone of the response??? in every country.

Sarah Boseley Health editor

In a draft consultation published on Friday, the experts say local authorities must demonstrate low levels of infection and an ability to contain new infections before schools are reopened, with public consultation a vital part of the decision-making process.

The report urges authorities to consider summer camps and outdoor schools for educating children, with community playing fields and sports clubs requisitioned for teaching purposes.

King said the decision of when to reopen schools was a ???careful balance??? but added it was vital for young people to get back to the classroom as soon as it was safe to do so. ???The current climate is likely to disproportionately affect the most disadvantaged in society, therefore it is vital that the government also considers innovative ways to help those who need it most.???

King established the Independent Sage committee amid concerns over the lack of transparency around scientific advice reaching ministers from the government???s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), co-chaired by the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, and England???s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty.

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: ???Support for a fixed date for school return is vanishing quickly. What is needed now is local flexibility to determine when it is right for schools to open up to more pupils, informed by evidence of what is happening in their local area.???

The Independent Sage committee will host an online discussion at midday on Friday for teachers, parents, children and union representatives in association with the British Medical Journal and Mumsnet. It will be broadcast on the Independent Sage YouTube channel, the committee???s Facebook page, on Twitter via @independentSAGE and @Sir_David_King, and on the BMJ???s home page.