Boris Johnson is being ‘overcautious’ by sticking to his plan to reopen schools in England on March 8 at the earliest, Government scientific advisers have claimed.
Some of the experts advising ministers believe ‘there really isn’t a case for keeping all kids off until March 8’ due to the success of the vaccination drive and falling case numbers.
They believe the large-scale roll-out of coronavirus jabs means there is no risk of a return to classrooms triggering a massive third wave of infections.
However, scientific opinion is split on the issue with other experts arguing that even March 8 could be too soon for pupils to return.
It came as it was claimed that ministers are considering proposals to extend the school day to help children catch up on lost time.
The idea is being pushed by some Tory MPs and the Government is said to be receptive to the proposal, according to The Times.
Should teaching unions object to such a move, it is thought that school buildings could be used for extended classes but with volunteers covering lessons.
Downing Street said at lunchtime that the Government is working with teachers and parents on catch-up plans, adding: ‘The PM acknowledges that extended schools closures have had a huge impact on pupils’ learning which will clearly take time to make up.’
Boris Johnson is under growing pressure to bring forward the reopening of schools in England
Ministers are said to be considering extending the school day when pupils return to classrooms in order to boost learning
Mr Johnson is under growing political pressure to bring forward the date for reopening schools after studies suggested that vaccines do reduce the risk of transmission.
Tory MPs are pushing the PM to follow Nicola Sturgeon’s lead after she announced that pupils in Scotland will start to go back to school after half-term from February 22.
The PM has said he intends to stick to his March 8 date because that will be the point at which millions of the most vulnerable people who have been given the jab will have built up their immunity.
But Professor Robert Dingwall, a member of the Department of Health’s NERVTAG committee on respiratory viruses, told The Telegraph he believes the vaccine roll-out would allow an earlier return for schools.
Speaking in a personal capacity, he said: ‘Many people looking at this think it’s a tolerable risk to get the kids back, as the Scots are doing.
‘We could start getting primary school children back after half term and there really isn’t a case for keeping all kids off until March 8.
‘The Scottish advisers tend to be more conservative than the English ones, so it’s very hard to resist the conclusion that the English are being a little overcautious this time.
‘If you have the first three years of primary coming back immediately after half term that is not now going to create an explosive third wave.’
Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) which advises the Government, said: ‘The latest Sage data on the contribution of reopening schools on the R-number is between 0.2 and 0.5.
‘That’s a huge range and my reading of the evidence is that it is at the lower end, which would suggest you could reopen primary schools after the February half term.’
However, other scientific experts believe returning to classrooms too soon will result in a spike in infections and that case numbers still need to fall a lot further before schools can reopen.
Mr Johnson insisted earlier this week that his March 8 date is the ‘prudent and cautious approach’ and that he does not intend to deviate from it.
He told a Downing Street press conference: ‘We have got to make a judgement about the effectiveness of the vaccines in bringing down the death rate and bringing down serious illness.
‘That judgement we are going to make in the week of the [February] 15th. We are going to look at all the data, we have seen some promising stuff from Israel but to the best of my knowledge we are not yet seeing the kind of conclusive data that we need on that key point.
‘Then we want to be waiting to ensure that after February 15 we leave three weeks for all the JCVI cohorts one to four, all those most vulnerable groups… have allowed their vaccination immunity to be acquired and as you know it takes about three weeks for it to properly set in.
‘That speaks to a date of about March 8. Then of course you need to give the schools two weeks notice to open.
‘For all those reasons we think that’s the sensible date. I just would say to people who understandably want to go faster, I share that anxiety and that urgency because we fought so hard and for so long to try to keep schools open, I think that was a reasonable thing to do, but what we don’t want to do now that we are making progress with the vaccine roll-out and we have got a timetable for the way ahead, we don’t want to be forced into reverse.
‘So we think this is the prudent and cautious approach and I think it much better to stick to that.’