Four prominent members of the Government’s own scientific advisory body have broken ranks to express worries about the safety of wider primary school opening on Monday.
SAGE members Professor Peter Horby, who is chair of the Government's New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG); Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Institute; John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Calum Semple, professor in Child Health and Outbreak Medicine have all expressed fears about the easing of lockdown.
On the BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, Professor Horby agreed with Professors Edmunds and Farrar’s concerns, saying that SAGE has always been very clear that test, trace, isolate must be fully running BEFORE lockdown is relaxed. The system needs to be tracking most new cases, he said, following them up within 48 hours.
Professor Horby added that SAGE does not have a good handle on the role of children and schools in transmission and stated that returning to another lockdown would be much worse than delaying another two or three weeks until contact tracing is fully up and running.
Professor Edmunds said “There are still 8,000 new infections every day in England without counting those in hospitals and care homes… If you look at it internationally, it’s a very high level of incidence.
“I think many of us would prefer to see the incidence driven down to lower levels because that then means that we have fewer cases occurring before we relax the measures.”
Professor Farrar tweeted: “Covid-19 spreading too fast to lift lockdown in England. TTI [test, trace and isolate] has to be in place, fully working, capable [of dealing with] any surge immediately.”
Professor Semple said: “Essentially, we’re lifting the lid on a boiling pan and it’s just going to bubble over… We need to get it down to simmer before we take the lid off, and it’s too early.”
He also said that levels of transmission and hospital admissions are still too high. "I think a political decision has been made to tie in with when school was due to start, were everything normal, but it’s not normal."
National Education Union joint general secretaries Kevin Courtney and Dr Mary Bousted said: “This public break by four prominent of the Government’s SAGE committee changes everything.
“No-one can now confidently assert that it is safe to open schools more widely from Monday.
“All four of these independent members of SAGE agree that there must a lower number of cases and an efficient system of contact tracing working before there is a relaxation of lockdown measures. Both these measures are included in the NEU’s Five Tests.
“Opening schools more widely runs the risk of increasing the R rate and therefore the level of risk to staff and to parents.
That risk can only be mitigated if contact tracing is running successfully.
“We have made that case strongly to Government – and we have been supported by the BMA and by the Independent SAGE group in our concerns. Government replies that it is following the science. But this public break by senior members of SAGE, including by the chair of the NERVTAG committee, undermines that claim.
“School leaders, their staff and pupils’ families deserve better than this.
“Even at this late stage, we call on the Government to draw back from wider opening of primary schools from Monday.
“Instead we urge Government to engage in talks with the profession and the unions, including the NEU, about how to open schools more widely once the contact tracing system is shown to be working.”