Government research used by ministers to insist that it is safe for pupils to return to school suggests that some secondary school pupils may spread coronavirus at a similar rate to adults, according to reports.
Public Health England (PHE) researchers are rumoured to be disconcerted with the way the findings – which are yet to be fully analysed or published – have been construed by top politicians, who have thus far not mentioned the alleged discovery of the supposedly growing risk posed by pupils as they increase in age.
With Boris Johnson declaring the return of all pupils to be the “national priority” and describing continued closures as “morally indefensible” on Sunday, education secretary Gavin Williamson touted the latest PHE research as making it “clear there is little evidence that the virus is transmitted at school”.
This interpretation was echoed by Sage member and president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, who said that the findings showed schools and pupils “play a minor role in transmission of the virus”.
But The Times reports that while the preliminary research indeed indicates minimal risk is posed by the return of primary school pupils, with only a small fraction of thousands of tests displaying a positive result, a PHE source closely involved with the study says the preliminary results suggest that as children age, “their bodies start to act like small adults”.
“Secondary children are most likely to get infected, have silent infection, transmit infection and get sicker,” the source reportedly said.
“There’s a genuine concern that secondary school children are not the same as primary school children. Once community control of Covid-19 is lost then outbreaks are seen in secondary schools.”
The study, which will be published later this year, tracks Covid-19 test results of some 20,000 teachers and pupils in 100 schools and was described by Mr Williamson as “one of the largest studies on the coronavirus in schools in the world”.
Not only were there more cases in Year 6 pupils and teenagers of key workers than in primary students, but these formed in clusters – suggesting transmissions occurred in school, another person with knowledge of the study told The Times.
Sixth form students would likely spread the virus to the same extent as adults, they added.
As doubt was cast over Mr Williamson’s description of the preliminary findings, The Telegraph reported that Downing Street has asked England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty to carry out a rapid review of the available schools research amid concerns that parents need more reassurance before the planned return in September.
The reports came shortly after No 10 confirmed that, in the event of local lockdowns, schools would be the “absolute last” places to close, with other sectors such as the hospitality and entertainment industries prioritised for closure in such instances.
Despite the prime minister’s tougher talk on schools’ return, which has been largely welcomed by education experts, he is under pressure from teaching unions and the children’s commissioner for England, who has called for more routine testing of pupils and staff.
Ministers have rejected the calls, saying the current safety standards are sufficient.
Responding to the reports that secondary school pupils may transmit the virus more readily, a PHE spokesperson said: “PHE analysis of recorded cases and outbreaks in educational settings in England is currently undergoing pre-publication verification and review, and will be published in due course.
“It appears to show that SARS-CoV-2 infections and outbreaks were uncommon in educational settings during the first month after the easing of national lockdown in England.”
“Additionally, a nationwide surveillance programme examining antibody prevalence in schoolchildren (sKIDs), is being analysed and should be published in the coming weeks. These publications combined will give the most complete picture of the landscape of Covid-19 in educational settings that we have seen to date.”