Teachers are not at an increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared with the general working-age population and are in a lower risk profession, the government's UK chief medical officers and their deputies said today.
In a joint statement, summarising the latest evidence on health risks around schools reopening, they say that "current international evidence" suggests that transmission of Covid-19 from school-age children "to parents or other adult family members is relatively rare compared to transmission from adults".
However, the statement also acknowledges that "this evidence is weak". And it adds: "Teenagers may be more likely to transmit to adults than younger children."
The statement reads: "Data from the UK (Office for National Statistics) suggest teachers are not at increased risk of dying from Covid-19 compared to the general working age population. ONS data identifies teaching as a lower-risk profession (no profession is zero-risk). International data support this.
Coronavirus: Is it safe to reopen schools?
"Transmission of Covid-19 to staff members in school does occur, and data from UK and international studies suggest it may largely be staff to staff (like other workplaces) rather than pupil to staff.
"This reinforces the need to maintain social distancing and good infection control inside and outside classroom settings, particularly between staff members and between older children and adults."
Professor Chris Whitty, England's chief medical officer, said that the risk of children catching the coronavirus and getting long-term problems from returning to school were “incredibly small” compared to the “clear” chances of them being damaged by not going.
He said that while the risk to children of Covid-19 from returning to school was “not zero”, the evidence that not going to school damages children in the long run was “overwhelming”.
Prof Whitty said the statement he compiled with the other chief medical officers was not guidance to parents but laying out the evidence of “things we know with confidence, the things that we think are probable and also some of the things we don’t know and making clear there is always some residual risk”.
In their joint statement, the chief and deputy chief medical officers of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said there were “no risk-free options” but school attendance was very important.
The chief and deputy chief medical officers said that reopening schools has not been usually followed by a surge in Covid-19 transmission but it could push the reproduction rate – the so-called R rate – above one.
If this happened it will require “local action and could mean societal choices” of imposing limitations on different parts of the community, they added.
They said: “Early identification and quickly managing outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools is essential as part of a local response to Covid-19.
“Clear advice for pupils and staff not to attend school with symptoms, and prompt availability of testing, appropriate isolation advice and careful public health surveillance and monitoring of educational establishments, are key to support the safe return to schools.”
Prof Whitty said there were “no easy choices” in confronting the coronavirus.
When asked about closing pubs or restaurants to keep schools open, Prof Whitty added: “The aim is, as far as possible, to do things locally so that if there is a surge in transmission at any points in a local area, we try and keep the other actions to the local area and tailor those as best as we can to what is driving the increase in those areas.
“If it was shops in a particular area, we would need to look at shops; if it was hospitality, we would need to look at hospitality.”
Teachers' union the NASUWT insisted on the need to ensure that effective risk control measures are in place, calling on the government to take steps to monitor those once schools are open, and noted the lack of comments on racial disparities linked to Covid-19.
Patrick Roach, NASUWT general secretary, said: “It is regrettable that the statement from the chief medical officers has not commented specifically on the well-known racial disparities linked to Covid-19.
"We have asked the government to publish its evidence on the equality impact of its plans for schools but so far they have refused to do so. It is important that the public is given all the facts.”
Dr Roach added: "The chief medical officers’ statement has reinforced the critical importance of effective risk control measures. Governments across the UK must take steps to ensure that there are effective systems in place to monitor schools’ practices and to provide ongoing reassurance on safety after schools reopen."
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said that plans to get all children back to school in September were a serious risk after two weeks of chaos following the exam grading fiasco.
He told The Observer: “I want to see children back at school next month, and I expect the prime minister to deliver on that commitment.
“However, the commitment is now at serious risk after a week of chaos, confusion and incompetence from the government.
“Ministers should have spent the summer implementing a national plan to get all children back to school. Instead, the last two weeks have been wasted clearing up a mess of the government’s own making over exam results.”
He added: “Restoring public confidence and getting a grip on the Department for Education must be Downing Street’s number one priority this week.
“Failure to do so will leave the government’s promise of ‘levelling up’ in tatters.”
A poll by The Daily Mail suggests that some parents are also yet to be convinced of the safety of plans for reopening schools.
Only 69 per cent said they intended sending their children back to school – with 14 per cent of respondents saying they didn't intend to do so, while 17 per cent said they were unsure.