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Jenny Harries: Pupils more likely to be hit by bus than catch Covid

Pupils are more likely to be hit by a bus on their way to school than catch coronavirus in the classroom, the deputy chief medical officer claimed today. 

Dr Jenny Harries said the risk of children being involved in a traffic accident or of catching the flu are ‘probably higher than the current risk’ posed by the deadly virus. 

Meanwhile, Education Minister Nick Gibb this morning insisted parents will be fined if they refuse to send their children back to school next week. 

He also said the Government is sticking by its advice to teachers that they do not need to wear masks despite a growing row with unions over staff safety. 

Public Health England data has shown that teachers are more likely to be infected than their pupils, after one in 23,000 students tested positive during the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays. 

Boris Johnson, fresh from his holiday to Scotland last week, today issued a plea to parents to send their children back to the classroom when schools reopen in England at the start of September. 

The Prime Minister said in a video posted on his Twitter account that he knew some parents were ‘still a bit worried’ about sending children back to school but he insisted it is ‘vital’ for pupil’s physical and mental health. 

He said the risk of children catching the disease is ‘very, very, very small’ and the risk of them suffering badly from it is ‘very, very, very, very, very small indeed’.

The Government remains under pressure over its handling of the return of schools with Tory MPs today complaining ministers have left it ‘very late’ to persuade parents it is safe. 

Many pupils in England have not been to class since March, when schools were closed except to look after vulnerable children and those of key workers.

Schools in Scotland reopened earlier this month, while those in Northern Ireland will welcome pupils again on Monday. English and Welsh schools will follow suit in September.

The Government today stepped up its efforts to prepare for the return of pupils as Dr Harries suggested the risk coronavirus poses to pupils is actually very small. 

She told Sky News: ‘Every time a parent sends their child off to school, pre-Covid, they may have been involved in a road traffic accident – there are all sorts of things.

‘That risk, or the risk of seasonal flu, we think is probably higher than the current risk of Covid.’

Her comments sparked controversy on social media as some accused her of ‘shockingly superficial thinking’. 

Dr Harries also told the BBC: ‘No environment anywhere we can say is 100 per cent risk free so I think we need to make that clear.

‘But it clearly is very confusing for parents at the moment and so all the UK chief medical officers and deputy chief medical officers right across Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England have looked at the evidence and put that down on a statement so that parents can understand the risk.

‘We think that the risks for children in schools is exceptionally small from Covid but the risks of not attending school are significant.’ 

Mr Gibb said this morning that all pupils must return to the classroom and that fines will be issued to parents who refuse to comply. 

He said: ‘Fines for non-attendance have always been a last resort for head teachers and schools.’    

On the crunch issue of whether teachers should wear masks, Mr Gibb said the current guidance against doing so will remain in place. 

He said: ‘We are always led by the scientific advice. What the current advice is is that if a school puts in place the measures that are in the guidance that we issued in early July, all of the hygiene pleasures I have been talking about, then masks are not necessary for staff or pupils.’

Asked if he believed the guidance could change, he said: ‘We always listen to whatever the current advice is from Public Health England, the chief medical officers, we always adhere to that advice.’

Unison is one a number of unions who have called for teachers to be allowed to wear a mask or face covering.

‘It’s still unclear why government guidance won’t allow them, when they’re recommended for other workplaces,’ the union said.  

Public Health England data showed the partial reopening of schools before the summer holidays resulted in just one in 23,000 children catching coronavirus.  

Some 70 children tested positive out of more than 1.6 million who were in class, with many confirmed as having the disease actually being asymptomatic. 

But some 128 staff members tested positive, with most transmission believed to have taken place between adults. 

However, while staff are more likely to be infected than pupils they are no more likely to be infected than the general population.

The Government’s handling of the schools return, and last week’s debacle over A-level and GCSE results, has sparked Tory MP fury. 

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader, told The Telegraph schools and parents needed a ‘clear message’ that it is ‘completely safe to return’. 

‘They have left it very late and the debacle of exam results means parents don’t trust the Government any more,’ he said.

Sir Iain urged Mr Johnson to ‘lead, galvanising his inner Churchill’ in order to reverse the Government’s fortunes.       

Mr Johnson is urging parents to send their children back to school and in a video posted on his Twitter account this morning, he said it is ‘absolutely vital’ that classes restart full time across England next week. 

‘It is vital for their education, it is vital for their welfare, it is vital for their physical and indeed their mental wellbeing, so let’s make sure all pupils get back to school at the beginning of September,’ he said. 

‘I think parents are genuinely still a bit worried about their children contracting coronavirus. 

‘All I can say is the risks are very, very, very small that they will even get it but then the risks that they will suffer from it badly are very, very, very, very, very small indeed.’ 

The PM had said in a statement issued overnight that there is a ‘moral duty to reopen schools to all pupils safely’.

The UK’s chief medical officers yesterday issued a joint statement seeking to reassure parents that it is safe to send their children back to school.

They said ‘very few, if any’ children and teenagers would come to long-term harm from the virus solely by attending school, while there was a ‘certainty’ of harm from not returning.   

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Mr Johnson’s commitment to get all children back to school was at ‘serious risk’ after a ‘week of chaos’ over exam results.

 Seventeen staff and two pupils have tested positive for coronavirus at a school which has now been shut until at least next week to undergo a deep clean.

All staff and children at Kingspark School in Dundee, which reopened along with other schools in Scotland on August 12, have been told to self-isolate for two weeks. 

NHS Tayside confirmed positive cases among three ‘community contacts’ linked to the cluster at the school, which has about 185 pupils aged between five and 18.

All pupils at the school, which was purpose built in 2009, have additional support needs – with many also having additional physical disabilities or medical problems.

Kingspark School was closed last Wednesday and all parents received a joint letter from the local council and NHS at the end of last week to keep them updated. 

The outbreak in Dundee was revealed as a leading Public Health England scientist revealed teachers are far more likely to spread Covid-19 than children. 

 Health officials confirmed a single positive case has also been linked to the primary 2A class at St Peter and Paul’s School in Dundee. 

A positive case has also been linked to Happy Times out-of-school club at Downfield Primary School in the same city.

The NHS also confirmed that a child attending the nursery at Newburgh Primary School was now isolating at home with other household members. 

One concerned mother said news about a case at one of the nurseries in Dundee was ‘every parent’s worst nightmare’.

She added: ‘It’s a very worrying development and there’s a great level of concern as you’d expect from parents with children at the nursery.

‘I have been advised that my child is to isolate for 14 days from the first day they came into contact with the confirmed case, however older siblings will still be required to attend the primary school.

‘There’s a lot of confusion and anxiety among parents I’ve spoken to about the situation but we’ll follow the advice we’ve been given.’

Dr Ellie Hothersall, consultant in public health medicine with NHS Tayside, said: ‘Since the identification of positive cases at Kingspark, a detailed contact tracing programme has been under way and these linked cases are being identified because of those concerted efforts of Test and Protect.

‘We must do everything we can to protect all of our communities against Covid-19 and that is why we have issued the guidance to self-isolate.

‘By taking this action we are containing any further spread of infection.we know this may cause anxiety to some parents and children but we must do everything we can to ensure we keep people safe.’

Elsewhere, a member of staff and two pupils at High Blantyre Primary School in South Lanarkshire have tested positive for Covid-19.

NHS Lanarkshire said adults and children connected to primary three or primary four had been asked not to attend class.

They will be offered testing on Wednesday and asked to self-isolate until they receive confirmation of a negative result.

Dr Josephine Pravinkumar, consultant in public health medicine, said: ‘We are aware that there will be concern among both children and their parents at this time.

‘We would like to reassure the local community that appropriate measures are being implemented.

‘Individuals should stay off school or work and get tested if they or their close contacts experience any Covid-19 symptoms, such as a cough, fever or loss of taste or smell, even if they are mild.’

Shelagh Mclean, Fife Council’s head of education and children’s services, said: ‘We are following public health advice and talking with our colleagues in NHS Fife about actions required regarding Covid-19.

‘With their direction, we are taking all appropriate actions, including that relating to Test and Protect and contact with any confirmed case linked to one of our schools.

‘A joint letter, from us and the NHS, was issued to all parents and carers in Fife at the end of last week to keep them informed.

‘We’ve also issued a comprehensive list of questions and answers to help with any questions that they may have, and reminded them of their responsibilities around quarantining at www.fife.gov. uk/schoolcovidfaqs’

Meanwhile restrictions have been placed on care homes across Tayside as authorities try to stem the spread of a coronavirus outbreak.

Indoor visits to the premises are due to restart across Scotland today, if deemed safe to do so.

However, the Tayside Incident Management Team (IMT) said this was not possible given the ongoing management of the cluster associated with the 2 Sisters factory, as well as other localised cases in the area.

Dr Emma Fletcher, associate director of public health for NHS Tayside, said: ‘The NHS Tayside Health Protection Team and colleagues in the three Health and Social Care Partnerships in Angus, Dundee and Perth and Kinross, together with other partner agencies, determined that the reintroduction of indoor visiting should not go ahead in Tayside at this time due to the ongoing situation at the factory and a number of other clusters and positive cases.  

‘We know that this will cause a level of anxiety and disappointment amongst care home residents and their loved ones, however we must ensure that we do everything we can to protect care home residents, staff and their families as we continue to address the challenges that Covid-19 presents.’

There have been 110 positive cases linked to the factory cluster, including 96 workers and 14 community contacts.

All staff and their households, including children, have been ordered to self-isolate until August 31. That measure is in force even if they have a negative result.

Dr Fletcher added: ‘The increase in positive cases linked to the factory again today is in line with what we expected and we continue to undertake detailed contact tracing of all cases to ensure everyone fully understands what action they must take.

‘Over the last week in Tayside as a whole, more than 2,500 tests have been taken at the testing sites across the area, including the two dedicated facilities in Coupar Angus and Dundee brought in specifically to support testing of 2 Sisters factory workers.

‘Hundreds of workers have attended for testing and given the volume of testing which has now been completed, we expect positive cases to continue to rise in the coming days as tests are processed and we receive the results.’ 

Meanwhile Boris Johnson has pleaded with parents to send their children back to the classroom as he takes charge of the drive to get all UK schools open next week.

The Prime Minister warned last night that pupils risk permanent damage to their future life chances if they continue to stay away.

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