A scientist from the government’s top coronavirus advisory group has condemned Boris Johnson’s claim that schools are safe.
Professor Susan Michie, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said the prime minister’s words were “untrue”.
Amid dire figures for COVID-19 infections (a record 53,135 were recorded on Tuesday), hospitalisations (five of England’s seven NHS regions currently have their highest ever number of patients) and deaths (981 were recorded on Wednesday, the highest since April), the government has been facing questions about the safety of reopening schools.
On Wednesday, education secretary Gavin Williamson delayed the reopening of England’s secondary schools until 11 January for exam year pupils and 18 January for other pupils. Most primary schools will reopen as planned next week.
Watch: England school reopenings delayed amid rising virus infection rates
Williamson said the secondary school delay was in response to the growing number of infections, but suggested “COVID infections among children are triggered by changes in the community rate” and that “we must continue to do all we can to keep children in school”.
And speaking at Wednesday’s Downing Street briefing, Johnson went on: “Today, of course it remains the case that keeping children in education is a national priority. It remains the case that schools are safe.”
Prof Michie, who is also a member of the Independent Sage group, responded:
PM Boris Johnson says today that schools are safe. This is untrue & prevents the necessary measures that need to be taken to make them safe eg. ventilation & distancing (which requires space in unused buildings & extra staff). See plan for safe schools from @IndependentSage
— Susan Michie (@SusanMichie) December 30, 2020
A number of experts had suggested a delayed return might be necessary as hospitals struggle.
Johnson also said later in the press conference that unless schools were in areas of very high infection rates, parents should allow their children to return when able to do so.
“Schools are safe, the problem is not the schools,” he said. “Send your children, send your family to school in the normal way, absolutely right to do.”
Meanwhile, Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said she was “astonished” at the government’s stance.
She said: “With warnings from eminent scientists of an ‘imminent catastrophe’ unless the whole of the UK is locked down, and with more cases in hospitals than ever before and our NHS facing an enormous crisis, [Williamson] is sending the majority of primary pupils and staff back on Monday to working environments which aren’t COVID secure.”
Dr Bousted added the NEU does not believe schools are “safe enough” for staff to work in.
Watch: We need to redouble our efforts to contain virus – Boris Johnson