Boris Johnson’s plans to reopen schools were in chaos last night after the Department for Education’s top scientist admitted they had ‘not done any modelling’ on virus transmission in classes.
Osama Rahman also admitted that the decision to reopen has been taken by the Cabinet not the department, adding the current advice is a ‘draft’ and ‘will be developed’.
Mr Rahman’s testimony will provide ammunition to teaching unions, the majority of which have already rejected the Government’s June 1 starting date.
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson dismissed concerns as ‘scaremongering’.
Pictured right: Boris Johnson during Prime Minister Questions at the House of Commons in London, Britain, 13 May 2020, as the lockdown eases. Pictured, left: Osama Rahman, whose admissions today left unions shocked
But answers provided by Mr Rahman – the chief scientific adviser to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson – to Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee yesterday left many MPs baffled.
Mr Rahman, an economist, struggled to spell out the ‘evidence base’ underpinning the decision to reopen.
Teachers ‘are more likely to catch coronavirus in the staff room’
Teachers are most at risk from coronavirus while in the staff room, the government’s chief pandemic modeller has claimed.
Professor Graham Medley said data showed the room could act as a ‘kind of bigger hub of transmission than the classroom’ during an online lecture at Cambridge University.
It comes as Boris Johnson’s plan to re-open schools on June 1 is thrown into chaos by education unions threatening to derail the plans.
The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) professor said during an online lecture that ‘teachers are very good at transmitting to each other, but less good at transmitting to children’.
‘We’re still watching (the staff room space) very closely.’
In a recording obtained by the Daily Telegraph he adds that the UK government’s scientific advice is made up of ‘educated quesswork’.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has blasted unions in the Commons for ‘scaremongering’.
Mr Williamson said: ‘The only consideration behind this decision is what is in the best interests of children and those who work in schools.
Boris Johnson plans to launch a staggered return to schools next month with pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 the first to go back in England.
He also said he did not know if the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) had issued advice on whether personal protective equipment (PPE) was necessary in schools. He was also unaware how many under-18s have died from Covid-19.
Mr Rahman said that a ‘bunch of conditions’ still needed to be fulfilled to restart safely.
Puzzled Tory MP Robert Halfon, chairman of the Education Select Committee, asked him: ‘Surely you must have the scientific evidence – you’re able to tell me the base underpinning the department’s decision to reopen schools to Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 first?’
In response, Mr Rahman said: ‘That was not a departmental decision. That was a Cabinet decision following advice from Sage via the Government’s chief scientific adviser and CMO [chief medical officer].’
National Education Union chief Dr Mary Bousted, who opposes a June 1 reopening, said his evidence was ‘staggering and frightening’.
Dr Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said: ‘The admissions are truly shocking and disturbing. The Government has simply not provided a single shred of evidence that opening schools from June 1 will be safe for children or teachers.
‘The Government’s health and safety guidance to make schools ‘COVID-19-secure’ is also woefully inadequate, and has done nothing to assure teachers or parents that it will be safe for schools to open to more children,’ he said.
‘Schools have been placed in a situation where the wrong decision will result in people becoming seriously ill and dying.
‘The Government must now publish the scientific evidence it is relying on to claim that it will be safe for children to return to schools from June 1st.’
Schools like this one in Altrincham have stayed open for vulnerable children and key worker families, but ministers want more pupils to return from June 1
Speaking at a virtual House of Commons Science and Technology Committee meeting today, Mr Rahman (left) was grilled by SNP MP Carol Monaghan (right)
Mr Rahman, who said he had attended ten meetings of Sage, also claimed there was a ‘low degree of confidence’ in evidence that children transmit Covid-19 any less than adults.
He said: ‘There are some studies which suggest that they might transmit it less than adults but this evidence is mixed, it’s quite early and so there is a low degree of confidence among Sage in the evidence which suggests that they might transmit it less.’
Nearly 100,000 travellers flew into during the outbreak’s peak in Britain
At the same committee meeting, the chief scientific adviser to the Home Office admitted nearly 100,000 people flew into Britain in April alone.
Professor John Aston said around 95,000 people arrived in the UK by plane between April 1 and 26, including 53,000 UK citizens.
Of those, fewer than 0.5 per cent (roughly 475 people) who arrived last month had Covid-19.
Professor Aston told the committee that SAGE used ‘complicated modelling’ to calculate the estimate.
‘It requires you to understand the prevalence (of Covid-19) within overseas countries as well as the prevalence within the UK,’ he said.
‘The view is that there is no evidence that children transmit virus more than adults, some studies that they might transmit it less than adults. But this science is mixed, and it’s quite early.’
He said the Department for Education had ‘not done any modelling’ around coronavirus, and that guidance issued to schools about reopening, which contains advice like limiting class sizes to 15, was only a ‘draft’.
Mr Rahman admitted that it was possible that ‘hundreds of potential vectors’ for the virus could be brought together amid a reopening of schools.
And asked whether this meant that schools could become hotspots where children can catch the disease and spread it further, Mr Rahman said: ‘Possibly, depending on school sizes.’
Soon after his appearance, he issued a letter retracting many of the claims he had made.
In apparent contradiction of his evidence, he wrote: ‘My team and I have been closely involved in advising on the Government’s position on reopening.’
The news came on a day that:
- Public Health England granted approval to an antibody test that can tell with 100% accuracy whether someone has had coronavirus – and may now have immunity for up to three years;
- The PM was warned by senior Tory MPs not to raise taxes to pay the feared £330bn annual bill the economy faces for coronavirus;
- Figures across the City warned Britain was facing a ‘recession of all recessions’ this year ;
- The WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan warned the virus may be around for at least five years;
- And the UK began the process of unlocking, with the nation’s beauty spots at their busiest in weeks as some restrictions were eased yesterday.
The Government wants Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils to return to primaries from June 1, when nurseries could also reopen. Other years will return before the summer holidays.
Guidance says schools should reduce class sizes to 15 or less, have one-way corridors and stagger break times. But unions claim the provisions are unsafe, with complaints about staff access to PPE and a lack of time to prepare for changes to teaching.
Yesterday nine unions representing workers across education demanded the Government ‘step back’ reopenings next month and ‘work with us to create the conditions for a safe return’.
A joint statement issued through the Trades Union Congress complained of a ‘lack of understanding’ of the risks faced by teachers and children, with no provision for social distancing.
Mr Williamson told MPs he would arrange ‘scientific briefings for the sector’ to assuage their concerns, but denounced ‘scaremongering’.
He said: ‘The only consideration behind this decision is what is in the best interests of children and those who work in schools.
‘And we all recognise the importance of children being able to return to schools. And sometimes scaremongering and making people fear is really unfair and not a welcome pressure that is to be placed on families, children and teachers alike.’
England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries also backed reopening, saying that access to education was crucial. She said: ‘I don’t think we should just be thinking about what is happening this minute… but over a child’s lifetime.’
Boris Johnson’s lockdown ‘road map’ set out that children could return to nurseries, and for Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 pupils to be back in school, from June 1 at the earliest.
The PM said he wants all primary school pupils in England to go back to school for a month before the summer. However, both Scotland and Wales have dismissed the timetable.
Without being at school, many pupils have no hope. That’s why teachers like me MUST get back in class, writes secondary school assistant principal CALVIN ROBINSON for the Daily Mail
The most important resource in my classroom is not state-of-the-art computers, the overhead projector or interactive whiteboard.
It’s me. The teacher. And that’s why I am desperate to get back to work, to do what I do best.
I have always been proud of my job as a computer sciences teacher at a North London secondary state school. But, after two months of lockdown, with my pupils forced to stay at home, I’ve never been more aware of how vital my role is.
Without a teacher in the classroom, to provide stability and expertise, focus and inspiration, how can children learn? There can be no doubt that the widespread closure of schools nationwide is causing irreparable damage to my pupils’ lives.
Without a teacher in the classroom, to provide stability and expertise, focus and inspiration, how can children learn? (Stock image)
For many, especially those from deprived areas or in homes where learning has no value, an education is the springboard — perhaps the only one — for those children who aspire to something different, to getting good qualifications leading to a fulfilling job and perhaps a better quality of life.
To put it bluntly, their time in school is often the only opportunity they get to make something of themselves.
I am not saying this out of any sense of self-importance. It’s simply that my frustration with what I see happening around me — with the teaching unions and commentators — is building to boiling point.
Every day, I think of the damage being done to my pupils’ prospects, to their mental well-being — the agony of having prepared for GCSEs and A-levels that they will never take — and to their hopes and dreams by the closure of schools.
For the evidence is irrefutable: long-distance learning via video links and emails is no substitute for a teacher in the schoolroom. And what about the children who don’t even get access to that?
Like most teachers, I am wrestling daily with the challenge of setting coursework over the internet. I teach mostly Key Stage Three, with pupils aged 13 to 15, laying the groundwork before the crucial GCSE year.
My subject is computer science, so I ought to be better placed than many of my colleagues to run such lessons effectively. But every day I hear from frustrated teenagers who want to do the work but can’t because the tech is failing them, poor broadband or faulty or dated electronics.
Some have smartphones, some have tablets, a few have laptops or even desktop computers. But unlike the slick digital tools or expensive gadgets pupils in the private sector are able to draw upon, many of my pupils’ devices are five years old or more — virtually obsolete in computing terms.
Pictured: Teacher Calvin Robinson (right) with the former Education Secretary Justine Greening (left)
Often they will have to share these devices with other family members. Their parents might also be working from home, and will need the computer.
In a classroom, every student is equal. But that is no longer true when the pupils are trying to learn at home, where some have a room of their own while others might be sharing a two-bedroom flat with five other people amid a volatile, unstable environment.
Is it any surprise that, according to a poll by the Sutton Trust and Public First, pupils at private schools are twice as likely to receive daily online tuition as their state educated peers?
Of course, this is hardly the fault of parents, many of whom have been left feeling utterly helpless by this crisis. They are already worried about loved ones they cannot see, about their jobs and their incomes.
On top of all that, it’s unreasonable to expect them to be able to assist young teenagers with schoolwork, especially in a subject like mine where the basic curriculum has changed beyond recognition in the past two decades.
A global review of 78 studies from around the world conducted in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that there were few cases of children having passed on coronavirus to adults. (Stock image)
Could you confidently help a 14-year-old complete their computer science coursework? It’s foolish to suppose anyone but a teacher could do it well. And that applies to all subjects, from modern languages to maths and all points in between.
As well as teaching, I am a consultant to about 200 schools across London, and I know there is some fantastic work being done online. Teachers and pupils are responding with huge innovation.
But that can’t hide the fact that there is no unified educational policy on remote teaching. We’re largely making this up as we go along, and that isn’t good enough.
In the future, schools need to establish common practices, and ensure some sort of uniformity with standard equipment and software.
That doesn’t help pupils today. They need action right now — otherwise we risk leaving an entire generation of children with a year-long black mark on their education.
That’s why it was unacceptable for the head of the National Education Union (NEU) to say this week that teachers should ‘await further union advice’ before co-operating with Government plans for a partial return to school on June 1.
I am not a union member, and don’t take my instructions from the NEU. I’ll listen to the Government advice and place my trust in the decisions of my headteacher.
But what I do, as a single individual, is scarcely relevant: the Covid-19 pandemic demands a collective determination and pragmatism as never before.
That’s why I despair of the union response and their attempt to make party political capital from the crisis.
The future of our children is at stake — and yet the very body dedicated to upholding the principle of education is prepared to sacrifice that and defer the re-opening of schools, until next year or perhaps indefinitely, while making unrealistic demands about safety.
Of course, no one — not doctors, not the Government — will ever be able to promise that there is zero risk for children from all infectious diseases in the classroom. Rigid social distancing will never be practical in schools.
But Sir David Spiegelhalter, one of the UK’s top statisticians, has described the threat the coronavirus poses to the young as ‘staggeringly low’.
Why can’t we use common sense to implement safety measures — and drill them into pupils — to minimise the risk?
As well as regular hand-washing and perhaps the wearing of masks, we can introduce one-way systems in the corridors, to reduce the jostling and melees between lessons.
Meanwhile, we must not let fear blinker the evidence-based conclusions being drawn by scientists every day.
A global review of 78 studies from around the world conducted in partnership with the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found that there were few cases of children having passed on coronavirus to adults.
It is crucial, too, to take into account the age profile of teachers. In London, for example, they tend to be around the age of 30 — and all the data suggests that this age group, while never guaranteed immunity, is relatively safe from the worst that coronavirus can do.
Of course, I accept that anyone with underlying health conditions, or whose age puts them at greater risk, should not be forced to return to the classroom.
Indeed, for the time being I think attendance ought not to be compulsory and parents who choose not to send their children back to school must not be stigmatised — it would be very wrong to impose fines on vulnerable people who fear their child might bring disease into their home, however unlikely that becomes.
Anyone who develops symptoms — child or teacher — must self-isolate.
But keeping schools shut is simply not an option I can endorse when the future of so many is at stake.
Never in my career have I been so aware of the importance of teaching. And never have I wanted to do it more.
Up to 100 British children have had a mysterious inflammatory disease thought to be caused by COVID-19 as experts warn NHS hospitals may only be seeing tip of the iceberg
by Sam Blanchard, Chief Health Reporter, for MailOnline
Up to 100 children have been hospitalised with a mysterious ‘inflammatory syndrome’ thought to be caused by the coronavirus.
Doctors today revealed that dozens of children, most aged between five and 15 years old, have become seriously ill with the condition that seems to appear up to a month after catching the coronavirus.
They say it is extremely rare and does not appear to have directly killed anyone in Britain but can lead to intensive care for a small proportion of those who get it.
The illness has been likened to Kawasaki disease, a rare disorder which causes rashes and a red mouth and eyes.
At least 18 children in London have been diagnosed with it since doctors first started noticing the syndrome last month.
Most troubling experts is that the illness is almost definitely caused by COVID-19 in some way but scientists can’t prove it.
The young patients’ lungs are not affected by it – in adults the coronavirus’s main target is the lungs – and many test negative when they are swabbed for the disease.
All of the patients studied so far, however, have tested positive for COVID-19 antibodies, meaning they have been exposed to the virus in the past. Scientists now believe it could be the consequence of the immune system going haywire after it has fought off the coronavirus infection, causing a second illness weeks later.
The same illness has been seen in Italy and China and around 100 children are known to have been diagnosed with it in New York.
Medics have likened the illness to toxic shock syndrome and Kawasaki disease, which can cause redness of the tongue (pictured left) and rashes (pictured right), but it is unclear whether this illness is having those effects
Speaking in a briefing this afternoon, Dr Liz Whittaker, a paediatrician in London who has treated children with the illness, said: ‘There is likely an iceberg effect and we’re only seeing only the very, very sick children.’
Dr Whittaker said the peak of admissions related to the illness appeared to have happened last week.
Explaining the disease, Dr Whittaker said: ‘These children are usually presenting when they’ve had a high fever for a few days.
‘A large proportion of them have had severe acute abdominal pain and diarrhoea and some have them have had the rash, red eyes and red lips.
‘A very small group of these children develop something we call shock, which is that small group of children for whom the heart is affected.
‘And those children become very unwell – they get cold hands and feet and they breathe very fast. Those are the group who absolutely need to be in an intensive care unit getting supportive care rapidly.
‘Most children seem to be very unwell for four or five days but then get better.’
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE SYNDROME?
WHAT SYMPTOMS DOES IT CAUSE?
The majority of the children being hospitalised with the condition have suffered from a high fever for a number of days, severe abdominal pain and diarrhoea.
Some develop a rash and red eyes or red lips, while a very small group go into shock, in which the heart is affected and they may get cold hands and feet and have rapid breathing.
The symptoms are similar to those caused by Kawasaki disease, a rare but treatable condition that affects around eight in every 100,000 children each year in the UK.
WHEN DID OFFICIALS FIRST START TO SEE CASES?
The NHS sent an alert to doctors on April 27, warning them to look out for signs of the syndrome.
At the time they said cases had been appearing in tiny numbers in London for about three weeks. Since then they have spread further across the country and between 75 and 100 children are known to have been infected.
IS IT CAUSED BY SARS-COV-2, THE CORONAVIRUS?
Doctors are almost certain the illness is being caused by the coronavirus but they haven’t yet been able to prove it.
Cases began appearing as the UK’s coronavirus outbreak hit its peak and similar conditions have been reported in China and Italy during the pandemic.
However, not all children with the Kawasaki-like syndrome test positive for the virus. Swab testing has suggested some of the children have not been infected with COVID-19 at the time they were ill.
But all patients have tested positive for antibodies, doctors said, meaning they have had the coronavirus in the past.
They said this suggests it is a ‘post-infectious phenomenon’ which is caused by a delayed overreaction of the immune system, which may happen weeks or even up to a month after the child was infected with COVID-19.
IS IT TREATABLE?
Yes. All but one of the children who have been diagnosed with the syndrome have survived. The only child known to have died with it, a 14-year-old boy, died of a stroke that was triggered by the life support machine he was on.
Doctors are currently treating the condition by using medications to calm down the immune system and dampen the overrection.
Dr Liz Whittaker, a paediatrician at Imperial College Healthcare in London, said the sickest children are usually very ill for four to five days and begin to recover a couple of days after starting treatment.
It is not clear exactly how many children have needed intensive care for the Kawasaki-like syndrome, but a surveillance study has now begun in Britain and early results may be available next week.
Professor Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said knowing about the syndrome had not changed the ‘basic arithmatic’ of COVID-19.
He said: ‘In general, children get no symptoms or very mild symptoms. They rarely present to hospital.
‘In fact across the whole of the UK there’s been under 500 admissions to hospital for COVID-19.’
The experts described the illness as a ‘post-infectious phenomenon’ because it seems to appear weeks or even up to a month after the child caught the coronavirus.
And, unusually, it seems not to affect their lungs. COVID-19 is considered a respiratory infection in adults, meaning it focuses almost entirely on the lungs.
The Kawasaki-like syndrome being seen in children, however, seems to affect the heart in serious cases. It still causes a high fever, as in adults, but apparently not coughing or shortness of breath.
Dr Whittaker explained: ‘These children don’t have really bad lung disease. The adults that we’re mostly seeing on the wards are presenting with really bad breathing problems.
‘These children; their lungs aren’t affected… We know that some of these children have had their heart tissue affected, maybe we would find the virus in other parts of the body which are harder to access.’
She said this could account for why children appeared to be testing negative for COVID-19, despite having the syndrome.
Swab tests currently rely on collecting cells from the nose and throat and testing those to look for signs of infection in the airways.
Dr Whittaker added: ‘There is the possibility that we’re taking samples from the wrong place.’
The illness also differs from COVID-19 in adults in that the children who have developed it have not had underlying health conditions.
The coronavirus seems to most badly affect adults who have other illnesses, such as high blood pressure, heart disease or diabetes. But the children developing this condition appear to have been otherwise healthy.
There are, however, ways of working out which children might get most seriously ill, scientists say.
Professor Michael Levin, an expert in international child health at Imperial College London, said: ‘In the very short period of time that we’ve been trying to study this problem we have learnt that there are some markers in the blood that, if we measure them, they seem to predict which patients are going to do badly and need more support and more treatment.
‘Just knowing that does help us quickly know if a child is likely to need more support and more treatment…. We need to study this at much bigger numbers.’
The illness first came to public attention when NHS England in April circulated a warning urging doctors to look out for the condition.
In an alert sent to GPs on April 27, health chiefs said: ‘There is growing concern that a [COVID-19] related inflammatory syndrome is emerging in children in the UK.
At least 552 people in Barrow-in-Furness (pictured), Cumbria, have been infected with the disease since the outbreak began in February
‘Over the last three weeks there has been an apparent rise in the number of children of all ages presenting with a multi-system inflammatory state requiring intensive care across London and also in other regions of the UK.’
Health Secretary Matt Hancock at the time said he was ‘very worried’ by the reports.
But experts say learning about the illness does not mean children are at any more risk from the coronavirus, and it does not mean they will be at risk when schools go back.
Schools will not continue to open if there is a risk of mass transmission of the virus, and cases are ‘exceptionally rare’, only beginning to appear after the darkest days of Britain’s outbreak when huge numbers of people were getting infected and dying of the virus.
Professor Viner added: ‘Fears about this syndrome shouldn’t stop parents letting their children exit the lockdown.
‘But parents do need to do is have some knowledge and have some understanding so they can recognise this and seek help very early.’
‘MY SON WAS HOSPITALISED WITH KAWASAKI DISEASE ON HIS SECOND BIRTHDAY’
Gemma Brown, 38, told MailOnline that her son, Bertie, was admitted to Worcestershire Royal hospital in March on his second birthday, when his temperature soared over 40C (104F) and his blotchy rash began to turn black.
Doctors were initially baffled but a senior consultant eventually diagnosed the boy with the rare Kawasaki disease, a form of toxic shock syndrome which causes the body’s immune system to attack its own organs.
But Bertie was not given a COVID-19 test, leaving both medics and his family in the dark about a possible link between Kawasaki disease and coronavirus.
‘I don’t know how the Government is going to prove there’s a link if they’re not testing patients,’ the mother-of-two from Droitwich Spa, Worcestershire, said.
‘I asked for him to be tested, as I had a gut feeling that there was a connection between covid and Kawasaki. Both attack your immune system and the whole family had been poorly with Covid symptoms before Bertie fell ill.
‘I was adamant that there was a link and was begging for a test, but they just told me that there was no need to test the under-fives.’
Bertie’s temperature soared over 40C (104F) and the blotchy rash spread across his body and began to turn black. Doctors were initially baffled but a senior consultant eventually diagnosed the boy with the rare Kawasaki disease
His mother Gemma (pictured with Bertie and is older brother George, 14) believes his symptoms were a complication of the coronavirus. But Bertie (right) was not given a COVID-19 test, leaving both medics and his family in the dark about a possible link
The boy was given an immunoglobin transfusion and was in hospital for five days. ‘It was horrific seeing him like that,’ Mrs Brown said.
‘He didn’t have any respiratory problems but he was put in a ward on his own and he was easily the most poorly child in the hospital.
‘His rash had started out being itchy, but it quickly put him in agony. His temperature was dangerously high and they were monitoring him round the clock.’
Bertie, who was born very prematurely weighing only 1.5lb, has always had a weak immune system, making him susceptible to viruses.
‘Thank God he is OK now and has come home, though he’s still on Aspirin to prevent his blood clotting,’ his mother said.
‘He’s much better in himself. But the fact is that we just don’t know what’s been going on as he wasn’t tested for coronavirus.’