Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union

Speaking after a meeting with the scientific panel advising Government on Covid-19, Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“We are pleased with today’s engagement, but very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available. We think it is very important that all the questions are answered and in public written form. This is important for transparency and for other scientists to comment on.

“We are pleased that Sir Patrick Vallance told the National Education Union that information and papers from SAGE would be published and that they will prioritise its release. We have also asked to see any commentaries or papers produced by Public Heath England that comment on the Department for Education’s guidance.

“We were told that we are in the foothills of knowledge and there is still a lot of uncertainty about the science, for example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults. Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.

“Amongst questions that we feel we still have no understandable answer to are:

  • How they will know the effect on the R rate of the current lifting of lockdown before further steps are taken?
  • What are the conditions that need to have been achieved before any wider opening of schools e.g. is there a particular daily case count that they are hoping for?
  • Why our country seems alone in saying that social distancing is not necessary in schools? We were not presented with any scientific evidence to justify the decision not to include social distancing in the guidance to English schools whereas it is an important part of the guidance in other countries, in fact we were told that they have evidence that children have passed the disease to adults.

“Subsequent to the meeting, I have written to the scientific panel with our urgent questions.

“We are very pleased that the British Medical Association have this afternoon announced their support for our five tests for the safe reopening of schools.” 

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than 1 June.

“That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.

“Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.”

Dr Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, said:

“Today’s meeting has raised more questions than answers.

“No information was provided to change the widely held view that the evidence base for opening schools from 1 June is weak.

“No evidence was provided at the meeting and there was no clarity about when it will be provided by SAGE.

“No confirmation was provided that teachers are at low risk of catching the virus following the wider opening of schools.

“No clear information was provided on what modelling has been undertaken in relation to potential transmission rates when schools open more widely.

“Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.

“We are continuing to press for answers to these questions and also for clear guidance from Government to schools to ensure that they take appropriate and reasonable steps to assess and mitigate the health and safety risks posed by COVID -19.

“The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”

The NEU’s questions to the scientific panel, sent today (15 May), are as follows:

1.       On Wednesday at the Science and Technology Select Committee, Osama Rahman said, “There are some studies which suggest that they (children) might transmit it less than adults but this evidence is mixed, it’s quite early and so there is a low degree of confidence among SAGE currently in the evidence which suggests that they might transmit it less.

When you advised on the opening of schools, how much transmission did you assume would take place from pupils to teachers and other staff?

2.       The Office of National Statistics said yesterday that children were as likely to have the infection as any other age group.

When you advised on the opening of schools was this part of your assumptions?

3.       The Department for Education guidance says, “there is high scientific confidence that children of all ages have less severe symptoms than adults if they contract coronavirus”.

Are you revising this assessment in view of the now proven link between COVID-19 and Paediatric Inflammatory Multisystem Syndrome (PIMS)? Evelina London Children’s Hospital has 40 cases currently of PIMS, of the first eight children treated, seven required the use of a ventilator. 

4.       The Department for Education guidance says, “We know that, unlike older children and adults, early years and primary age children cannot be expected to remain 2 metres apart from each other and staff. In deciding to bring more children back to early years and schools, we are taking this into account.”

How safe is this for staff, given the lack of social distancing? What do you estimate the risk of transmission is between children?

5.       The Secretary of State has said the policy is based on experience from Denmark, but in Denmark social distancing of 2 metres is a requirement, it is a requirement that outside play is restricted to 5 and that inside activity restricted to 3.

In England the group size is 15, this is a lot higher, and social distancing is not a requirement. Did that not have a significant impact on your modelling of spread?

6.       In the general population it is estimated that as much as 40% of transmission results from asymptomatic people (Independent SAGE).

Given that most children are asymptomatic, what is the estimate in your model for transmission by asymptomatic children? And how will case identification work when children are often not symptomatic?

7.       How long do you expect it to take to measure any change in R as a result of the relaxing of social distancing this week? The Prime Minister’s stated ambition is that all primary children will return on 22 June.

How will you have the time to measure the initial opening of primary schools since that is only 3 weeks later?

8.       2.1 million children are eligible to return to primary school (that’s nursery, reception, year 1 and year 6 pupils) on the Government’s plan and 500,000 primary staff (minus a small percentage of extremely vulnerable staff). Currently 1/370 have coronavirus, so that is more than 1,300 staff and 5,700 pupils, 7,000 in all. Or roughly 1 person in every two schools.

What do you hope to have that number down to by the time of return? What is the Governments test for a wider opening of schools?

9.       The Office for National Statistics tell us that black people are four times more likely to die from a coronavirus than white people and that people from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds have more than 50% more risk of dying – what modelling do you have of the number of staff who will die? The ONS also tell us that socio-economic deprivation plays a very significant role in increased mortality, and many school staff are paid on the minimum wage.

Can you give us a table of risks for all staff?

10.     While R was estimated to be between 0.5 - 0.9 nationally last week, in the North East it is still 0.8 - 1.1 so not below one. There are huge variations in terms of the number of confirmed cases in Gateshead and Sunderland int stands at 482 and 481 per 100,000, while in While North Somerset it is 152 and in Wiltshire it is 100. In Barrow-in-Furness it is an appalling 824 per 100,000.

Do you think we think there may be localities where the wider opening of schools could be too great a risk?

11.     The Department for Education guidance only allows extremely vulnerable staff to work away from the school premises. Staff who live with extremely vulnerable people are expected to report to school. Vulnerable staff are expected to work at school. Staff who are over 70 are expected to report for work and staff who live with people over 70 are expected to work from school.

What risk do you think vulnerable staff and staff over the age of 70 are at working from school with social distancing? If a member of staff catches coronavirus what risk do you think there is that they will pass it to other members of their household?

12.     In Denmark, local public health officials must inspect and pass school premises before they are opened.

Why do you think this is not necessary in England?

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