Top doctor hits says English schools return is ‘far too risky’


SCOTLAND’S former chief medical officer has criticised the decision by Boris Johnson’s Government to reopen primary schools in England this week.

Sir Harry Burns said it was “far too early” in the pandemic to allow some pupils to return to classes as lots of the virus was still present. He said a second outbreak of Covid-19 would make older teachers vulnerable.

However, he believed Scotland was “in a better place” in terms of the reopening of schools in August.

“I think we are in a better place with schools reopening in Scotland in August than they are in England. We don’t know yet if lifting lockdown will produce a second spike. In that case, older teachers in England will be vulnerable,” he told The National.

“By August we should have a better idea as to the risk of reopening schools. I agree with the comments from scientists in England. Far too early to put schools back in action. Lots of the virus still around makes it very risky to reopen schools.”

The Welsh Government yesterday announced that all pupils will be able to return for limited periods during the week from June 29 – but that only a third of pupils would be allowed into school at any time.

READ MORE: Boris Johnson in U-turn over English schools reopening in June

Sir Harry was Scotland’s chief medical officer from 2005 to 2014 and was in his post while Nicola Sturgeon was health secretary during the H1N1 outbreak in 2009. He is now professor of global public health at Strathclyde University.

Last month he urged ministers to “tread carefully” over relaxing lockdown. He said he wanted to see the transmission rate – known as the “R” number – fall further before measures are eased.

He claimed ideally it would be below 0.5, compared with the Scottish Government’s estimate of 0.7 to 1. Sir Harry told MSPs: “I expect it to go up when we ease lockdown. We need to tread carefully.”

Sir Harry also raised concerns at Holyrood’s Covid committee about the accuracy of the government’s testing regime.

Despite his concerns over the quality control measures in place for the tests, he said that he would like to see everyone in Scotland checked for coronavirus to track the spread of the virus. The Scottish Government estimates that tests for up to 2% of the population will be required to achieve “extensive” testing, and that 15,500 per day may need to be carried out.

He said: “We need to be sure that the testing that’s done is accurate and that it’s giving you the appropriate information and then there is the appropriate follow up.”

Schools reopened for early year pupils, Reception, Year 1 and Year 6 (equivalent in Scotland to pre-school for four and five year olds, Primary 1 and Primary 7) on Monday.

However, nearly half of families – 46% – decided to keep their children at home, according to a new report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

A separate survey by ParentKind found about 90% of parents in England, Wales and Northern Ireland oppose the re-opening of schools. Last month it emerged scientific modelling compiled on May 4, by scientists from Imperial College London, looked at the impact of schools returning in June or July, and suggested that the latter could reduce the number of daily deaths in hospitals over time.

While the impact of reopening primary schools in June is negligible until August, potential deaths begin to rise to just under 400 per day by October, according to the modelling.

In comparison, reopening schools in July would see deaths creep up more slowly from August.

Schools closed on March 20 across the UK, except for key workers’ children and vulnerable children, as the virus spread.

Primaries and secondaries in Scotland are due to return on August 11 under a “blended” or part-time model which would see pupils split into groups and attend classes for part of the week and complete tasks at home set by their teachers.

Each council area is drawing up its own detailed plans depending on its local population and class sizes.

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