The government insists the reopening of schools in September is “not up for debate” despite warnings of a second wave of coronavirus.
Scientists have warned that reopening schools could trigger a serious second COVID-19 peak unless the NHS Test and Trace system is improved.
But on Tuesday, junior minister for local government, Simon Clarke, insisted the system is “delivering” and that schools will reopen.
He told Sky News: “One thing is clear, schools are going to reopen in full in the autumn, that is not up for debate.
“There’s nothing gung-ho about getting schools back. There is little doubt about the major damage that it does to children’s education not to be in school.
“It is an absolute priority that we get on with this, it is a basic matter of social justice, there is a generation of children whose performance will be inhibited throughout the rest of their time in education unless we get this right and we’re confident that we can.”
He said 184,000 people, either those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or their contacts, have been contacted by the NHS Test and Trace system, calling it a “massive success”.
However, he said: “There’s always more to be done, we’re very honest about the fact this is a challenge.”
But according to a study by researchers at University College London (UCL) and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), current testing and tracing is inadequate to prevent a second wave after schools reopen.
It said the NHS Test and Trace programme needs to be scaled up in order to reopen schools safely.
The study modelled various scenarios and found that in the worst case, a second wave could be 2.3 times higher than the first.
Researchers looked at the potential outcomes of schools reopening, coupled with more parents returning to the workplace and increased socialising within the community.
The study, published in The Lancet Child and Adolescent Health, found that “with increased levels of testing… and effective contact tracing and isolation, an epidemic rebound might be prevented”.
The modelling comes after experts warned that pubs may need to be shut in order to allow schools to reopen while keeping the spread of COVID-19 down.
One of the study’s authors, Chris Bonell, professor of public health sociology at LSHTM, said the current testing system has “about 50% coverage”.
He said: “Reopening schools fully in September, alongside reopening workplaces in society, without an effective test, trace, isolating (TTI) strategy could result in a second wave of infections between two and 2.3 times the size of the original wave.”
The authors said that the reopening of schools and an inadequate testing and contract tracing system, along with the gradual easing of lockdown measures, are “likely to induce a second wave that would peak in December 2020 if schools open full-time in September”.
Dr Jasmina Panovska-Griffiths, senior research fellow and lecturer in mathematical modelling at UCL, said: “Our results show that reopening schools fully in September will not lead to a second wave if accompanied by a comprehensive test, trace and isolate strategy.”
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