Back-to-school decisions are 'hard balancing act', chief medical officer admits

The chief medical officer has said it’s “understandable” that parents are “thinking very hard” about whether they should send their children back to school, saying weighing up the benefits and risks is a “hard balancing act”.

Professor Chris Whitty, speaking at today’s Downing Street briefing, said the decision is down to “when is the right time when the risks and benefits have some sort of balancing out”.

He said returning pupils to school meant they wouldn’t miss out further on their education, something that would lead to a “huge disadvantage for the rest of their lives”.

But he said that is set against the downsides of “going to school during an epidemic”, of which he listed four.

He said the first was the risk to children, although he said this is one of the few “reassurances we can give – it looks like children are much less likely to get a clinical disease of any sort”.

He added “compared to adults it’s not a dangerous disease that picks out children”.

Secondly, he said that parents of primary pupils are generally not in the older age groups that are more vulnerable to “severe problems with coronavirus”.

He also warned of a “very complicated balancing act for society in terms of the possibility of increasing transmission and depriving children of their education on the other”.

But he added that the rates of transmission are “much lower than they were when schools were closed”.

Finally, he raised the issue of children’s contact with their grandparents, but said “that’s about people taking sensible decisions”.

On the broader issue of sending children back to school, Whitty added: “Anyone can understand why parents are thinking about this very hard.”

He did not mention the potential risks to teachers of reopening schools more widely.

His comments come after a National Education Union survey found four in 10 primaries did not re-open to more pupils on Monday. However some schools did have inset days on Monday and others were planning to reopen later in the week.

The Association of Schools and College Leaders estimated attendance of eligible pupils on Monday ranged between 40 and 70 per cent.

Schools were told by the government to reopen for pupils in reception, year 1 and year 6 this week.

But a poll published on Monday found half of adults opposed the government’s back-to-school plans.