LONDON – Britain, after moving aggressively to reopen its economy after three months of shutting down coronavirus, is now facing what some experts throw as a binary trade-off for a country that loves a good book as much as a cold hemisphere: schools or pubs?
On Monday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson came down on the school side. When visiting an empty classroom in East London, Mr. Johnson said the full opening of Britain’s schools next month was a “moral duty” and that in the event of a recurrence of the virus, “the last thing we want to do is close schools.”
To avoid this scenario, medical experts said, the government must be ready to sacrifice another sacred British institution – pubs and restaurants, which opened a few weeks ago under social distance guidelines but are increasingly seen as the biggest risks of spreading the virus.
Johnson’s efforts to reopen schools have put him at odds with teachers’ unions and local governments, who generally accept that schools should reopen but argue that the UK’s testing and contact tracing system is not robust enough to handle the almost safe outbreaks to follow.
The government, they said, had not developed plans for how teachers should deal with sick students or communicate with parents if there is an outbreak. Mr Johnson’s back-to-school campaign, some said, slammed a government that had emphasized other priorities, such as eating out in restaurants, and played catch-up.
“It does not play very well with school leaders, who do not need a lecture on moral duty,” said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents school administrators.
Britain’s school debate is news of it in the United States and has swept in the same welcome of thorny issues: the economy, social justice, race and the role of government. And as in other countries, it has often ignited heated disputes about science, with claims and counterclaims.
Education Minister Gavin Williamson said on Monday that there was little evidence that the virus could spread widely in classrooms. When he made this statement, he was apparently referring to the results of an as yet unpublished government study that looked at 20,000 students and teachers in 100 schools during the summer. British schools closed on March 20 but reopened on a limited basis on June 1 for first- and sixth-year students.
“We have always been and will continue to be guided by the best scientific and medical advice,” Williamson said. The results, he said, should contribute to “growing confidence among parents that their children will return.”
But it is often difficult to determine “science” and Williamson’s claims were challenged by several experts.
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Primary schools have not been incubators for the virus in countries that forced social distancing and masking, but there have been outbreaks at high schools in Australia and Israel.
Younger children are less likely to spread the virus, but the risk is far from zero, and those aged 10 and older are just as likely as adults to transmit it, according to a larger, recent study from South Korea. And it is not clear, experts say, whether younger children are less infectious or simply have fewer opportunities to transmit the virus.
“Although children have very mild symptoms and certainly do not suffer as much as adults, they are spreaders, and children over the age of 10 are significant spreaders,” said David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the government who has emerged as an outspoken critic of Britain. pandemic responses.
Professor King pointed to a new study by Neil Ferguson, a prominent epidemiologist at Imperial College London, and predicted that a full reopening of schools would increase the reproduction, or R, number of viruses by as much as 0.5. The reproduction number currently hovers close to 1 in large parts of the country and may be slightly above that in London, according to Professor King.
Reproduction numbers above 1 mean that an outbreak is growing and the daily number of new cases in the UK has increased since it dropped below 600 in early July. On Sunday, it peaked at 1,000.
Given the limitations of the country’s test, tracking and isolation system, some question how it will deal with outbreaks in schools when it inevitably happens. The government has already had to reintroduce restrictions in Leicester and Greater Manchester, following the reported spikes in the number of infections.
“The big question is, if you open schools, how long can you keep them open?” says Devi Sridhar, Head of the Global Health Management Program at Edinburgh University. “If it spreads, will you shut down the whole school? Are you excluded from a single class? How do you define a bubble? “
Professor Sridhar said the safest way to open schools was to slow down the transfer rate – and the way to do that, she said, was to close “the economic night.” In the Scottish city of Aberdeen, she noted, nearly 800 people were forced into solitary confinement due to an outbreak that authorities tracked down to a handful of pubs.
“My message is that you have to choose,” she said. What part of the economy do you have to sacrifice? Something must give. “
Johnson cannot order schools to open or close; these decisions are made by the local health authorities. But some teachers say they are anxious to return to the classroom and see the health risks as manageable. Schools in Scotland plan to reopen this week, with England opening on 1 September.
The prime minister struck a conciliatory tone on Monday, despite his choice of the empty St. Joseph’s Catholic elementary school for his message seemed curious. The problem is that he has shown more enthusiasm when he fights other parts of the economy.
Throughout this month, for example, the government gives a 50 percent discount on its restaurant bills to encourage them to eat out. Early in the pandemic, Mr. Johnson hated to close the pubs and left it up to the owners to decide before finally introducing a lockdown on March 23.
Even now, Dr. King, Johnson has not actually committed to shutting them down if necessary. “He will wait and see what we do after we open the schools,” he said. “It’s just a lack of strategy.”