One of the UK government’s scientific advisers has called for children to be vaccinated for Covid-19 and warned that opening schools now could lead to a resurgence of the virus.
Prof John Edmunds confirmed nervousness among some members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), of which he is one, about the government’s plan to reopen all schools on 8 March.
He said the move, which is expected to be confirmed by Boris Johnson on Monday, risked pushing the reproduction rate for the virus above the danger threshold of one.
Speaking on the BBC’s The Andrew Marr Show, Edmunds said: “I think if we open schools now, the reproduction number is likely to go to something close to one, potentially slightly above.”
He added: “We’re all at risk. And we can all spread the virus, and so until we’ve all been vaccinated, and I include children here, then there is going to be significant risk of a resurgence.”
Asked if children should be vaccinated after adults, Edmunds suggested they should be vaccinated alongside adults.
“I think there’s an argument for turning to children as fast as we can,” he said. Edmunds, who has two children in secondary school, added: “There will continue to be major disruption in schools until we have vaccinated our children.”
He appeared to favour a phased reopening of schools. Asked if it would be better to open primary schools before secondary schools, Edmunds said: “Sticking to the epidemiology, it is always safer to take smaller steps and evaluate.”
He warned that if lockdown was eased before younger people were vaccinated there was a risk the virus would mutate into variants that were resistant to the jab. He said: “It’s certainly a risk if we allow higher rates of infection in certain parts of the communities – younger individuals – then we do run the risk of further mutations occurring which could reduce the effectiveness of the vaccination programme.”
His remarks came after education sources told the Guardian that the chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, was “very unhappy” with the idea of all 10 million children and staff returning to schools in England on 8 March, although the government denied this and insisted Whitty was not opposed to any of the options being discussed.
On Monday the prime minister is expected to say he wants schools and parents to use controversial lateral flow tests to check secondary pupils for Covid before allowing them to return to classrooms.
The Labour leader said he wanted all pupils in England back in school by this date, despite calls from education unions for a phased return.
Sir Keir Starmer told Sky News’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that more coronavirus testing and “Nightingale classrooms” could address some of the issues. Starmer said: “Ideally, I would like to see all schools back open on March 8th and all children back into schools on March 8th.
“I have been worried through the pandemic – a number of people have – about the impact that being out of school has on, particularly, vulnerable children and the attainment gap is getting bigger.”
He said the government would have to follow the data and the scientific advice on the issue, “but that’s what we should be working towards”.
He added: “If that means more testing, if that means Nightingale classrooms, if it means other measures, let’s do that because I want to get our kids back into school.”
The health secretary declined to comment on the details of easing lockdown, which has yet to be signed off by cabinet ministers.
Matt Hancock told Sky: “We have set out very clearly that getting schools back is the top priority amongst all the different things that we want to do to get life back to normal.”
He added: “Whilst we want to set out a roadmap which gives people guidance in terms of how we think we will be able to do this, we also absolutely will be vigilant to the data on the way.