NEU comment on SAGE’s advice to Government to close schools.

Following the release of the minutes of SAGE 74 (1) held on 22nd December, it is now clear that SAGE told ministers that they needed to close schools to contain coronavirus before Christmas. They are so concerned about the new variant that they cannot be sure that measures like the Spring lockdown will be enough to get R below 1.

11. It is highly unlikely that measures with stringency and adherence in line with the measures in England in November (i.e. with schools open) would be sufficient to maintain R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. R would be lower with schools closed, with closure of secondary schools likely to have a greater effect than closure of primary schools. It remains difficult to distinguish where transmission between children takes place, and it is important to consider contacts made outside of schools.

12. It is not known whether measures with similar stringency and adherence as Spring, with both primary and secondary schools closed, would be sufficient to bring R below 1 in the presence of the new variant. The introduction of Tier 4 measures in England combined with the school holidays will be informative of the strength of measures required to control the new variant but analysis of this will not be possible until mid-January.

Also released today was the Children’s Task and Finish Group: updated paper on children, schools and transmission (2) this document makes clear the important role schools play in the spread of coronavirus.

Overall, accumulating evidence is consistent with increased transmission occurring amongst school children when schools are open, particularly in children of secondary school age (high confidence): multiple data sources show a reduction in transmission in children following schools closing for half term, and transmission rates increasing again following the post-half term return to school (medium confidence). It is difficult to quantify the size of this effect, and it remains difficult to quantify the level of transmission taking place specifically within schools compared to other settings.

In Annex B, “Report on COVID-19 in schools in England”, Figure 2 shows the very strong correlation between confirmed cases amongst pupils and confirmed cases amongst staff. The latest Coronavirus Infection Survey (3) shows that infection rates are highest amongst school age children.

Commenting Kevin Courtney, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

“SAGE have told the Government that they need to close schools to contain coronavirus and the Government have decided to ignore their advice. It is also clear from the SAGE documents that school pupils and school staff are infecting each other, and that school age children have the highest rates of infection.

“On this basis we do not believe that it is safe for the community, pupils or school staff for schools and colleges to reopen on Monday.

“We believe that schools and colleges should remain closed until mid-January at the earliest so that the Government can make an informed decision on the safety of reopening schools as SAGE advise.”

Sources:

1: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/948606/s0991-sage-meeting-74-covid-19.pdf

2: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/948617/s0998-tfc-update-to-4-november-2020-paper-on-children-schools-transmission.pdf

3: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases/bulletins/coronaviruscovid19infectionsurveypilot/24december2020

ENDS

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