No.10 Downing Street has asked England’s chief medical officer to speed up a review of the evidence on coronavirus in schools in a bid to show that it is safe for children to head back to the classroom.
As pressure mounts on the government to meet its pledge for a full school return next month, The Telegraph reports that Professor Chris Whitty has been asked to carry out a “rapid evaluation” of the research on classroom transmission.
But the review comes amid concern that older pupils are likely to spread the virus as easily as adults.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson on Monday trailed the findings of a Public Health England (PHE) study into the issue as he said the "latest research, which is expected to be published later this year“ would make it "clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school".
And he said there was "growing confidence among parents about their children returning" to the classroom.
However, The Times reports that there is disquiet among the study’s researchers at the way its findings, which have not yet been fully analysed, have been presented by ministers.
The paper says scientists at PHE believe more stringent rules may be needed for older children even if primary schools are deemed to pose little danger of spreading the virus.
Pressed on those reported findings by BBC Breakfast on Tuesday, health minister Edward Argar said he did not want to “prejudge” PHE’s work.
“Firstly, that isn't complete research — that's work that's still underway. I don't want to prejudge what that will or won't say," he said.
“I'm sure it will be published as soon as it's complete and quite rightly you and others will question it and we'll look at that.”
But the minister added: “What we do have at the moment are a significant number of international studies.
“We've seen in Norway and Denmark where schools have gone back, we haven't seen any increases in transmission within them.
“In France, there was a study and in Australia a recent study, all of which suggested that children were less likely to get the disease... much less likely to have serious symptoms and to suffer the ill effects of it in the way that acquired hospitalisation and crucially... that they were less likely to transmit it to adults, or to see it, transmitted between adults within those environments.”
'Simple social justice'
The government had to shelve a planned reopening of primary schools before the summer break, after weeks of disputes between ministers, teachers’ unions and local councils.
A study published in the Lancet last week meanwhile warned that reopening schools without a string of improvements to the government’s Covid-19 test and trace system could prompt an even more severe second wave of cases.
Speaking a visit to a school in east London on Monday, Boris Johnson said: "We think that education is the priority for the country, and that is simple social justice.
"The way we are trying to manage the Covid pandemic is to have local measures in place and local test and trace to introduce restrictions where that's necessary. But, as we have all said, the last thing we want to do is to close schools."
A Downing Street spokesperson meanwhile said schools would be “the absolute last sector to close in any local lockdown”, describing the reopening of classrooms as a “national priority”.
A version of this story was first published on CSW's sister site PoliticsHome