Schools will return 'in full' in September after UN warns of 'generational catastrophe' because of shut classrooms

Nicolas Cecil
·4 min read

Schools will return “in full” in September, a minister declared today despite warnings that their reopening could spark a second wave of coronavirus.

Local government minister Simon Clarke said it is “not up for debate” whether all pupils come back to the classroom in a matter of weeks.

However, he admitted the test-and-trace system still needed to improve and stressed all citizens had a duty to self-isolate if they test positive for Covid-19 or if advised to do so having come into close contact with an infected person.

The Government took the firm line as United Nations secretary-general Antonio Guterres warned the world faces a “generational catastrophe” because of school closures during the pandemic and said getting students safely back to the classroom must be “a top priority”.

However, a new report raised the alarm over whether schools could reopen fully in the autumn without triggering a second wave even worse than the first, given the performance of the UK’s test, trace and isolate system.

The modelling study, which simulated 12 scenarios, examined possible implications of UK schools going back coupled with broader reopening of society, such as more parents returning to the workplace and increased socialising. The

authors found that “with increased levels of testing ... and effective contact-tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.

But they said that without this the full reopening of schools in September, together with gradual relaxing of the lockdown, are “likely to induce a second wave that would peak in December”.

In a worst-case scenario, a second wave could be 2.3 times higher than the first, according to the study published in The Lancet Child And Adolescent Health journal.

More than 56,000 people with coronavirus have died in the UK since the first wave of the pandemic hit.

Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, senior research fellow and lecturer in mathematical modelling at the Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care, University College London and lead author of the modelling study, said: “With full reopening of schools alongside society reopening, we suggest that the second wave can be avoided by increasing testing to capture 75 per cent of those with symptoms and then go on to contact trace 68 per cent of their contacts.”

However, she said that currently test and trace in England was only reaching about 50 per cent of contacts of those testing positive.

Despite the warnings, Mr Clarke was adamant that schools would soon be fully open.

“Schools absolutely will be coming back full time for all pupils in September,” he told Talk Radio. “That’s something which is a total priority for the Government. We are absolutely clear that the impact of children missing so much of their education is enormous and has multi-year consequences for their life chances.”

He insisted the test and trace was reaching 80 per cent of people who test positive for Covid and over 75 per cent of their close contacts.

However, the study cast doubt on whether this was the full picture, because just under a fifth of people who test positive and were referred to test and trace did not provide any details for contacts.

Some might not have been in contact with other people, while others may refuse to co-operate with the system. Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “Ministers need to be honest about the scale of the problems with the test-and-trace system — it just isn’t reaching enough people and is showing no sign of doing so.”

Mr Clarke said test and trace was “delivering” but admitted it still needed to be improved and urged all citizens to engage with it.

“It’s up to all of us to do the right thing if we either test positive for coronavirus or are in close contact with someone and then are contacted by test and trace and advised to self-isolate,” he added.

He said that more than 184,000 people have been contacted by the programme so far, with overall testing due to rise to 500,000 by the end of October.

The study comes after suggestions that pubs may need to shut, or social freedoms curbed, in order to allow schools to reopen while keeping the spread of Covid-19 down.

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