It is still unclear whether schools will be able to reopen after half term because of uncertainties around the transmission of Covid-19, one of the government’s top medical advisers has warned.
Dr Jenny Harries, the deputy chief medical officer for England, said it was likely that schools would welcome pupils at different times in different parts of the country because of uneven progress in bringing down infections.
“It is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown, we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities … it may well be possible that we need to have some differential application,” she told MPs on the Commons education committee on Tuesday morning.
The government moved most pupils to remote learning after the start of the national lockdown amid fears that their presence in school was helping spread the virus – leaving just vulnerable children and those of key workers attending in person.
Ministers said the situation would be reviewed in time for the February half term, but have yet to say for certain when all children will be able to go back.
“I know everybody wants very certain planning, and dates for opening and closing – unfortunately that’s not how the virus works,” Dr Harries told the MPs.
“It’s highly likely that all countries are going to see changes in mutations and new variants of this virus over the coming months and potentially years.
“Now, that doesn’t mean that schools are going to have to stay in the position they are now – far from it ... but it does mean that it’s difficult to say with certainty at any one point.”
Dr Harries said the Department for Education’s half term suggestion was a “perfectly reasonable assumption”.
But she added: "What I can’t guarantee that is in this interval between now and February that there wouldn't be another variant, or we may find some other epidemiological change.
“I think these are very sensible time estimates, but they need to be understood is not fixed dates, and that would apply to anything in any department in relation to the pandemic.”
Speaking to the same committee, Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there was a “situation of really quite a lot of uncertainty” about the roles of schools in Covid-19 transmission.
“We remain uncertain about the role of schools: the role the role of school children is more clear, and I think we recognise that children of primary school and younger age groups play, as we had thought before, a relatively minor role in transmission of this pandemic – but they do play a role, and it is foolish to think they do not,” he told the committee.
Children of primary school and younger age groups play, as we had thought before, a relatively minor role in transmission of this pandemic
Professor Russell Viner
“They absolutely play a role, children do transmit this virus and they can bring it back from school to their households. But the role of primary school children and early years appears to be lesser.
“What we saw, particularly from October-November onwards was high rates of viral prevalence of the frequency of the virus, particularly amongst teenagers. And what we see for transmission is a complex interaction of the biology, which is how likely a child or young person is to transmit with social mixing, and then with the environmental controls.”
He continued: “We think that children under 12 are probably less susceptible to catch the virus. And clearly if you’re less susceptible to catch the virus, you know that that can dampen your ability to pass it on.
“Children and young people are less likely to be symptomatic they’re less likely to have the cough, the fevers, and we think because of that, that will also help reduce transmission to some extent.
“But what children and particularly teenagers do is socialise or socially mix a lot more than most adults. So what you have is a balance between the biology and the social mixing.
“And we think for teenagers that high level of social mixing, much of which also occurs outside of schools is responsible for teenagers being more involved in transmission than we had previously thought.”
Concluding, Professor Viner said: “We don’t yet have a clear answer to how much of this transmission is within schools, or it is actually fairly uncontrolled mixing outside of schools, and that's clearly important.
“We know that schools are quite contained places. They are a place of course where you bring a lot of teenagers and young people together. But there are also places where their behaviour is contained and is containable.
“And there’s quite a lot of evidence that with good mitigations in place that transmission can be reduced.”
It comes as new figures from the Office for National Statistics show an estimated one in eight people in England had had Covid-19 by December last year, up from one in 11 in November.