More than a third of local authorities in England still don't have Covid infection levels low enough to meet the threshold needed for "safe" reopening set by a prominent group of scientists, Tes can reveal.
As teachers and pupils prepare to return to the classroom on Monday morning, Office for National Statistics Figures (ONS) today show that 58 local authority areas have Covid infection rates of more than 100 per 100,000 people - the level below which Independent Sage scientists say it is safe to reopen schools.
They include a huge tract of Northern England. And some of the highest rates are found in some of England's most deprived cities including Bradford with 164 in 100,000 and Hull with 161.
Professor Gabriel Scally, an independent Sage member and professor of public health at the University of Bristol, said there could be “a real upsurge” in coronavirus infections in some areas, particularly deprived areas, after schools reopened on Monday.
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“That was our threshold [100 in 100,000] and according to that they [schools] are not safe [to reopen]," he said. “The implication of opening schools when they’re not safe will be an upsurge in transmissions both amongst the pupils and the staff, but in the local communities as well because the children are a main transmitter back into households.
“And this risks, particularly in those local authorities where the conditions are rife i.e. [with] high levels of deprivation and overcrowding and BME communities - that we will see a real upsurge again in the virus and that’s very serious.”
Professor Scally said there needed to be a regional approach for reopening schools.
“When you look at the vaccine uptake rates there is a very significant difference between the best off and the least well-off areas," he said. "There are people in their middle years [who haven’t yet been vaccinated] who may not be high risk but maybe medium risk or low risk but may have some respiratory problems or heart problems and if the virus takes off again it will effect those people
“This one-size fits all approach by the government [in reopening schools] discriminates against deprived communities because we know there is still more circulating virus and there are more cases in deprived communities so what might be safe in a wealthier communities might not be safe in some of those communities.”
Last month Independent Sage scientists proposed a traffic light system for schools reopening in which they said schools should not open at all in areas with more than 100 cases per 100,000
Under traffic light system for schools reopening, low-incidence areas would be those with less than 10 cases per 100,000, while medium risk would be between 10 and 50 cases per 100,000, and higher risk areas would be those with between 50 and 100.
Beyond 100, schools wouldn't open at all the group said.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “School is the best place for children’s education and wellbeing. That is why this government has prioritised all children returning to school as soon as the public health situation has permitted and based on the latest scientific and medical advice.
“Teachers and other school staff across the country have been working tremendously hard to make sure schools are as safe as possible when children return. On top of the protective measures that were already in place, the advice is for secondary school students to wear face coverings wherever social distancing cannot be maintained.
“Twice-weekly testing is also available to everyone working in education, families of children, and all secondary school and college students as an extra layer of reassurance and to help break chains of transmission of the virus.”
The 58 local authority areas with Covid rates above 100 per 100,000 are:
Blackburn with Darwen 153
St. Helens 151.7
Telford and Wrekin 141.8
South Tyneside 119.9
North East Lincolnshire 117.8
North Tyneside 107.7
County Durham 103.9
Milton Keynes 100.9