Union criticises ‘flimsy’ evidence behind Government’s plan to reopen schools

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent John Ray

Teachers’ unions are calling for more answers from the Government over whether children and staff will be safe if schools reopen in England following a meeting with chief scientific advisers.

One leader of a teachers’ union said the scientific evidence presented at the briefing with the Government’s chief medical officer and other experts on Friday afternoon was “flimsy at best”.

Education unions say they have been left with many unanswered questions about the evidence underpinning the decision to reopen England’s schools to more pupils from June 1 as lockdown measures ease.

It comes as the chairman of the British Medical Association (BMA) said that the Government should not consider reopening schools in England until the case numbers are “much lower”.

In a letter addressed to Kevin Courtney, the joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Dr Chaand Nagpaul said the current evidence on reopening schools is “conflicting” and he praised the union for urging caution over returning more pupils to school.

But after the meeting between unions and the scientific advisers, Mr Williamson said getting children back to school was “vital” for their educational development.

  • ITV News Correspondent John Ray has more on the decision:

The Government plans to send children in Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 back to school from as early as next month despite opposition from teaching unions.

Patrick Roach, general secretary of the teaching union NASUWT, said they had been left with “more questions than answers” after the briefing.

He told the PA news agency: “The meeting that we had earlier this afternoon frankly was not conclusive in relation to the evidence base to support the proposal for the wider reopening of schools. That evidence is flimsy at best, in terms of the international comparisons being used.”

Dr Roach added: “Nothing in the meeting provided reassurance for the deeply worried and anxious school workforce.

“The NASUWT remains clear that no school should reopen until it can demonstrate that it is safe to do so.”

Mr Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “We are pleased with today’s engagement, but very many questions that we asked were not addressed in the time available.

“We think it is very important that all the questions are answered and in public written form. This is important for transparency and for other scientists to comment on.”

Mr Courtney said that Sir Patrick Vallance told the union that they would prioritise publishing information and papers from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

He added that the education unions were told there is still “a lot of uncertainty” about the science.

“For example, we were told children’s likelihood to transmit Covid-19 is not more than adults but only that it may be less than adults,” Mr Courtney said.

“Just yesterday the Office of National Statistics suggested that age does not affect the likelihood of being infected. Today we heard that there are cases where children do act as the index case.”

Speaking at the daily Downing Street press conference, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the likelihood of anyone having coronavirus in a primary school was very small and diminishing.

“If currently we have, say, two or three in a thousand of our population with infection, in the proposed time frame coming forward in the next couple of weeks that’s likely to halve,” she said.

“There’s a lot of anxiety I think around this but people need to think through in an average infant school with 100 children, the likelihood of anybody having this disease is very small and diminishing with time, so I think we just need to keep that in perspective.”

She added: “Children who have been invited back to school are at key points of their education and their longer-term health risks of not getting good, basic education, which then takes them into work, employment in adult life and gives them a prevention opportunity from long-term conditions is really very important.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson. Credit: PA

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said getting children back to school is “vital” for their educational development and he has welcomed the efforts by many schools in England to prepare for a wider reopening.

Mr Williamson said: “I want to reassure parents and families that we are giving schools, nurseries and other providers all the guidance and support they will need to welcome more children back in a phased way and no earlier than June 1.

“That’s why we have engaged closely with stakeholders from across the sector throughout the past seven weeks, including the trade unions, and today we arranged a detailed briefing for them with the scientific and medical experts.

“Getting children back to school is vital for their educational development and many schools are already taking steps to welcome back their pupils. I am grateful for their support.”

At Friday's daily government coronavirus briefing, Health Secretary for England Matt Hancock said: "I wouldn't support a proposal to start to reopen schools unless it was safe to do so."

He added "it is safe to do so" but admitted "there is an awful lot of work to do" within individual schools to ensure proper social distancing measures can be followed.

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