Wednesday 27 May 2020

Independent SAGE's Draft Report did NOT recommend June 15th as a date for wider opening of schools

In opposition to a reckless wider opening of schools, the National Education Union has been consistently making clear that, unlike the Government, it will be guided by public health expertise. That advice has been summarised in the ‘5 tests’ that need to be met before more pupils can safely return.

The release of a draft report by ‘Independent Sage’ on 22nd May gave further support to the NEU’s position. It specifically listed the “National Education Union Criteria for Schools Re-opening” in its appendix and strongly opposed the Government’s suggested wider opening of primary schools on 1 June.

As the Chair of the group, Sir David King, stated in the accompanying press statement: “It is clear from the evidence we have collected that June 1st is simply too early to go back. By going ahead with this dangerous decision, the government is further risking the health of our communities and the likelihood of a second spike.”

However, modelling in the Report has been reported as giving scientific backing for a wider return being safe as long as it takes place on June 15th, rather than June 1st. June 15th is, of course, the date that the Government have also now chosen as the date for secondary schools to start to widen opening and, surely not coincidentally, for retail shops and other services to open too.

But what did the report actually say? It’s reference to June 15th was the following:

“All risks to children are very low and all risks get lower over time as COVID-19 cases become less common (assuming the virus “reproductive number” R remains below 1). Delaying a school re-opening by two weeks (to 15​th​ June) approximately​ ​halves the risk to children​, and delaying the re-opening till September is less risky still”

Now this is, of course, reassuring for parents and staff to know. The risks to children are, according to the modelling, halved if wider opening is delayed by two weeks – although even less risky if delayed until September. But – and it’s an important but – this is based on modelling that assumes that “R” remains below one and that risks continue to fall. 

That prediction would have to change if the assumptions behind it changed – but they may well have done already. The confused weakening of messaging around the need to maintain social distancing could have increased that risk already. That’s why the NEU’s “Test Two” about the need for “a national plan for social distancing” remains key.

What must be recognised is that nowhere within the Report do ‘independent SAGE’ recommend 15 June as an alternative date for wider re-opening. In fact, their main message is not about any specific date but to insist that “local test, track and isolate programmes are in place and tested before schools re-open”. This is, of course, entirely in line with the NEU’s ‘5 tests’.

It re-emphasises the point later in the Report that: “the crucial factor allowing school reopening around the world has been the presence of well-functioning local test, trace and isolate protocols - something that is now accepted will not be in place in England by early June”.

Also, mirroring NEU “Test One”, it states that “local communities need to be sure that there are ​few people currently infected and that numbers of new infections are decreasing​, with the definition of ‘few’ considered in the context of declines locally over the previous 2 weeks and numbers at the peak of the pandemic … it is important to consider the locality-based COVID 19 infection and death rates as the best indicator of the risk from any future school-based outbreaks. ​We plan to have modelled these effects before we release our full report next week” (so clearly this is not the last word from independent SAGE on schools and any further report will also need to be considered).

Significantly for community transmission, the Report states that "ongoing UK data​ suggest that children are in fact as likely as adults to become infected and carry the virus. They may be less likely than adults to transmit the virus because, for instance, adults are contagious for longer than children. However, the impact of placing many children in one place could lead schools to become “institutional amplifiers”, if asymptomatic children go unnoticed until an adult becomes symptomatic".

Finally, while the Report also acknowledges the benefits of children being able to return to school for their own wellbeing, rather than recommend a date for return, it discusses what steps could be taken to better support children if schools DON’T open, including a section on “preserving education in the summer and if schools stay closed”. These include providing wider access to wifi and computers, requisitioning facilities that could provide socially distanced facilities where schools are unable to do so, providing of midday meals and the necessary ​investment and resources to deliver this support.

So, in conclusion, the NEU has been clear that schools should not open more widely until the ‘5 tests’ are met and that 'no arbitrary date' should be set for that to happen. That’s what I read the independent SAGE report as saying too.

This latest medical opinion from the British Medical Journal is both damning of the Government and clear that 'test, track and trace' is still far from being 'in place and tested' 

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