Letter used by PM as evidence of school 'safety' warned of need for 'prompt availability of testing'

A statement by the UK’s chief medical officers referenced by Boris Johnson as evidence that schools are safe warned that the “prompt availability of testing” was “key” to the safe return of pupils to schools.

The prime minister told MPs on Wednesday that advice from government medical officers showed there was “an exceptionally small risk to children of primary and secondary school age” from Covid from this disease, which he said was “all in the letter that they published today”.

Asked what advice he was referring to, the Department of Health and Social Care pointed Schools Week to a consensus statement actually published on August 23.

The statement, signed by the chief and deputy chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, said early identification and quickly managing outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools “is essential as part of a local response to Covid-19”.

The PM’s comments follow reports that school staff and pupils are facing huge difficulties in accessing coronavirus tests, and come after the government was forced to take action to stop schools having to wait days for guidance from local health services.

In their statement, the medical offiers said “clear advice for pupils and staff not to attend school with symptoms, and prompt availability of testing, appropriate isolation advice, and careful public health surveillance and monitoring of educational establishments are key to support the safe return to schools”.

They also acknowledged that it was “likely opening schools will put some upward pressure on transmission more widely”.

“The international real-world evidence suggests that reopening of schools has usually not been followed by a surge of Covid-19 in a timescale that implies schools are the principal reason for the surge. There has, however, not been sufficient time to say this with confidence.”

In the medical officers’ statement, which takes into account several UK and international studies and scientific literature, they said they were “confident in the extensive evidence that there is an exceptionally small risk of children of primary or secondary school age dying from Covid-19”.

“The infection fatality rate (proportion of those who are infected who die) for those aged 5 to 14 is estimated at 14 per million, lower than for most seasonal flu infections. Every death of a child is a tragedy but Covid-19 deaths in children and teenagers are fortunately extremely rare and almost all deaths are in children with significant pre-existing health conditions.”

They also said that data from the UK suggest teachers “are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working-age population”.

The Office for National Statistics reported earlier this year that the rate of Covid-19-related deaths among teaching and educational professionals was 6.7 per 100,000 for men and 3.3 for women.

This is roughly the same rate as those classed as business and public service associate professionals (6.8 and 2.8) and corporate managers and directors (6.4 and 2.6), but much lower than those in elementary trades and related occupations (27.8 and 12.5) and those in textiles, printing and other skilled trades (24.6 and 7.0).

A lack of schooling, on the other hand, “increases inequalities, reduces the life chances of children and can exacerbate physical and mental health issues”, the medical officers warned.

“School improves health, learning, socialisation and opportunities throughout the life course including employment. It has not been possible to reduce societal inequalities through the provision of home-based education alone. School attendance is very important for children and young people.”

 

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact the statement from the chief medical officers was published on August 23, not September 23 as originally reported. We apologise for this error, and are happy to correct the record.