Scientists have told a parliamentary committee that the decision on when to open schools more widely should be based on local infection rates rather than a given date.
And in a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus today, Anthony Costello, professor of global health and sustainable development at UCL and a former director at the World Health Organisation, said that schools in two areas of England could "arguably" open safely to more pupils now.
The latest government coronavirus case figures reveal that the two areas are Devon and north-east Lincolnshire.
His comments appear to contradict those made earlier today by Professor Calum Semple, of the University of Liverpool, a member of SAGE (the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), who said it was "nowhere near" safe for schools to open.
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Professor Costello told the APPG that it would be more helpful for headteachers to be told about local Covid-19 prevalence rates when discussing when to reopen more widely, rather than being given a date.
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Prime minister Boris Johnson has proposed a date of 8 March from which schools could open more widely.
Professor Costello told the committee: "One of the most important things is what advice would we give now to headteachers and local authorities about when it is safe to open schools.
"You’re never going to have totally safe schools, but at what period? At the moment, the prime minister is saying 8 March.
"If we assume children amplify viral transmission, then the criteria for reopening has to be sensitive to the local prevalence of infection."
Professor Costello said Professor Karl Friston, a neuroscientist at UCL and a fellow member of the Independent SAGE group of scientists, had calculated that areas with Covid-19 cases of under 100 in 100,000 per day could reopen schools safely.
"You have to ensure you’re keeping the R [Covid reproduction number] below 1 and stopping exponential growth, so you would want to open schools at a certain threshold level," Professor Costello said.
"And my colleague Professor Karl Friston has quantified this as basically around 100 cases per 100,000 a day in your local area. If you get it below that then it’s safe to open schools."
He added that there were "two areas in the country I’m told which do have levels less than a 100 cases per 100,000 and therefore arguably you could open in those areas now".
"And having a date is less good than a quantitative explanation to headteachers and local authorities of what’s happening their area and what they need to do," he said.
Professor Costello also said in the APPG meeting that teachers should be prioritised for vaccination, and that it would be possible to vaccinate all school staff in a day.