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The UK’s chief medical officer has warned fully reopening schools could send the R rate above 1 and spark a potential second wave.
Containing the coronavirus pandemic depends on keeping the R number – the rate at which the infection spreads – as low as possible.
Professor Chris Whitty said there were “no risk-free options” for the Government.
The infection risk for children is considered to be low but with 453,000 teachers returning to work and parents gathering at school gates before and after school localised outbreaks may be inevitable.
Professor Whitty has issued a joint statement with three of his colleagues saying they believe say the overall benefits of getting children back into classes after nearly six months at home will outweigh the dangers.
The statement, signed by Prof Whitty and Dr Frank Atherton, Dr Gregor Smith and Dr Michael McBride, the CMOs for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, says: “Lack of schooling increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues.
"It is possible that opening schools will provide enough upward pressure on R that it goes above 1 having previously been below it, at least in some local areas.”
The Government has said all pupils, in all year groups, in England should return to class full-time in September.
Schools have already reopened in Scotland.
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Prof Whitty added "many more [children] are likely to be harmed by not going than harmed by going" to school.
He said: "There's also very clear evidence from the UK and around the world that children much less commonly get a severe illness and end up having to be hospitalised if they get symptomatic Covid."
He added the vast majority of children who had died after testing positive for Covid-19 already had "very serious" pre-existing health conditions.
Official figures say while 46,725 over-20s have died from coronavirus the figure for victims aged 19 and under is only 10.
However, Prof Whitty acknowledged, reopening schools would inevitably mean more local lockdowns of the kind we recently saw in Leicester – a move estimated to have cost local business around £10 million.
He added Covid-19 would be a challenge for at least nine months.
While he thinks it’s unlikely will see a vaccine in 2020 there’s a "reasonable chance” of an immunisation being widely available by the winter of 2021-22.
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