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Schools are not safe to reopen on Monday, scientists warn as government refuses to backtrack

A report by the Independent Sage committee finds the government’s own model for reopening schools shows infection rate could increase

SCHOOL reopenings on Monday will not be safe, a group of Britain’s top scientists warned today as the government refused to backtrack from its decision.

A report by the Independent Sage committee, finalised over the last week, has found that the government’s own modelling of reopening schools shows that the R value — the infection’s ability to spread — rising above critical level of one. 

The most recent estimates for Britain place the R value between 0.7 and one, and all the scenarios modelled by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) risk pushing R beyond that threshold, the report says.

In opening schools on Monday the government is therefore failing to follow the advice of its own Sage committee.

“Robust testing systems are not in place everywhere,” the report adds.

“Additionally, public adherence to social distancing is influenced by trust in the government and its messaging. This trust is increasingly strained.”

By going ahead with a general school reopening from June 1 the government is risking a new surge in cases across some communities.

Decisions on school opening should be guided by evidence that there are low levels of Covid-19 infections in the local community in which the school is situated and that it is able to respond rapidly to new infections through a well-functioning, co-ordinated local test, track and isolate strategy, the report says.

“We have seen no compelling evidence that these conditions have so far been met across the country. Until they are, it is not safe to open schools everywhere on June 1,” it concludes.

National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretary Dr Mary Bousted said the report casts “yet more doubt and concern” over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision.

She said: “The government’s primary duty should be to protect its people, but in England — unlike the rest of the UK — we are hurtling towards the further opening of schools before the scientific evidence says it is safe to do so.
 
“This decision threatens not just the health of school communities but also of wider society. All the sacrifices that have been made to stay indoors and try to contain this virus could be thrown away in the pursuit of fulfilling an arbitrary promise to open schools more widely from June 1.”

Even with the current low pupil numbers in schools, significant problems with health and safety still exists, according to the NEU’s survey of over 4,000 members.

The poll found that staff were worried about the inability to maintain social distancing, the lack of hand sanitiser, insufficient PPE and a lack of sinks for hand washing.

Ahead of the report, Labour MPs Jeremy Corbyn and Nadia Whittome joined leading trade unionists and campaigners in branding the PM’s decision to push ahead with reopening schools on Monday as “reckless” and “dangerous.”

Their letter called for no schools to open until the NEU’s five tests for safe reopenings were met by the government.

Sheffield Trade Union Council (TUC) have formed a CV-19 Council of Action, uniting trade unions, health professionals, campaign groups, teachers, parents and others opposing the government’s “ill-thought-out plans to reopen primary schools even before the virus is fully under control.”

Sheffield TUC secretary Martin Mayer said: “Social distancing is not possible with small children. It’s not just in the classroom — it’s in the toilets, the corridors, the canteen and the playground. 

“It’s not just the teachers – parents and pupils are also scared to return to school.”

Sheffield TUC is staging a “mass Zoom meeting” for parents at 8pm tonight.

Meanwhile, public service union Unison warned that anxiety is widespread among school workers about their safety, their families’ and that of pupils ahead of Monday’s return.

Unison head of education Jon Richards said: “Support staff are essential to schools running properly and they shouldn’t have to feel scared about doing their jobs.

“A delay to the reopening plans will allow unions and government the space to work together to reassure staff and families in England that the return to school can happen safely.”

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