Government advisers have urged great caution over the reopening of schools in England, saying there is no scientific evidence to show that it can be done completely safely.
The scientific advisers have also told ministers that a robust system to test and trace new cases of coronavirus should be in place before more pupils are allowed to return to their classrooms.
Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, has said the government is “confident that children and teachers will be safe”.
He told the BBC on Sunday that “the clear scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen, accompanied with social distancing”, reflecting how the government wants a phased reopening of primary schools from June 1.
But 12 documents published on Friday by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), which looked at research evidence and modelling of different ways of relaxing school closures, were more cautious.
One document found there was “substantial uncertainty” about the effects of school openings. It said the “evidence remains inconclusive” on both the susceptibility and infectivity of children, “but the balance of evidence suggests that both may be lower than in adults”.
However, Sage did conclude that teachers were not at any greater risk of contracting the virus than adults in other occupations.
The Sage documents also considered the knock-on effects of opening schools in increasing social interaction in the wider community, and warned this could increase the spread of the virus.
The reproduction rate for the virus — or the average number of new cases generated by one infected person — remains at last week’s level of 0.7 to 1, said Sage.
But it warned that “if the current reproduction number is only just below 1, then even a small change could lead to a return to exponential growth” of new virus cases.
According to the Sage documents, scientists advised that asking pupils to attend schools on alternate weeks was a “good” way to “stop extensive [virus] transmission chains in school”.
However, ministers have said they want pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 to return full time to primary schools in England from June 1. Currently, the schools are providing education for vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson maintained that the Sage papers showed that the phased, cautious return of a limited number of pupils to classrooms had been a carefully considered decision based on the best scientific and medical advice.
“My department continues to engage with the school, college and nursery sectors and I am enormously grateful for all the planning and preparation they are doing, alongside local authorities and academy trusts,” he said.
“The welfare of children remains at the very heart of everything we are doing because being able to be back in school will benefit not just their education but also their wellbeing.”
The Sage documents were published after an independent group of scientists said schools in England should not reopen on June 1 because there was “no clear evidence” that it was safe.
Local authorities must be certain of low community infection rates and be able to track and trace new virus cases before schools can reopen, said the report by scientists known as “independent Sage”.
But an analysis released on Friday by University College London of 18 studies from around the world put children at half the risk of susceptibility to infection from the virus compared with adults, suggesting pupils’ role in transmission of the disease would be limited.
Professor Russell Viner, who led the analysis, said “the balance of risks is strongly in favour of a return to school” for children, but signalled his support for the independent Sage’s recommendation that “an effective test and trace mechanism . . . is very important to mitigate the uncertainty”.
Opposition parties have questioned whether Boris Johnson will be able to fulfil his pledge on Wednesday to deliver a “world-beating” test and trace system by June 1.
Teaching unions have been demanding more information from the government, including scientific evidence behind ministers’ decisions, before accepting it is safe to reopen schools.
Unions on Friday maintained their opposition to a reopening of schools on June 1.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, called for a rethink. “The government must finally relent on its arbitrary target date . . . and accept it is simply not yet safe for the wider opening,” he said.
At least 44 of the 151 local education authorities in England have said not all their primary schools will reopen on June 1.
Some councils are opposed to the government’s outline plan, suggesting that even if ministers decide to press ahead with a June 1 reopening, many schools are likely to be closed to all but vulnerable children and those of key workers.
Downing Street said it would set out more details for a phased reopening of schools in England “as soon as we can”.
The government is looking to balance the health risks to children, families and teachers against the long-term effect of home schooling on pupils’ education, and the restrictions it imposes on parents being able to return to work.
One of the Sage documents warned that the de facto closure of schools since mid-March would for some pupils have caused “a shock to their education which will persist and affect their educational and work outcomes for the rest of their lives”.
Additional reporting by Andrew Jack in London and Andy Bounds in Huddersfield