Children are at greater risk of harm from a car accident than falling ill from the coronavirus, according to England’s deputy chief medical officer.
Attempting to reassure parents in England it was safe to send their children back to school in September, Dr Jenny Harries said the health risks to pupils from Covid-19 were “exceptionally small”.
The senior government adviser said: “No environment is completely risk free. Every time a parent sends a child off to school, pre Covid, they may have been involved in a road traffic accident. And in fact that risk – or the risk from seasonal flu – we think is probably higher than the current risk of Covid.
“Parents worst nightmare would be the death of a child, and we know that is an exceptionally rare event [with Covid-19],” Dr Harries told Sky News. “We also know that children very rarely get serious disease and get hospitalised – and when children do get infection it’s usually very mild and sometimes asymptomatic.”
Dr Harries echoed comments made by Boris Johnson as he returned to work at No 10 – arguing there was a “significant” chance of damaging child’s development and wellbeing if they were kept away from school any longer.
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.
Dr Harries told BBC Breakfast: “We know that if children miss out on their education, particularly those in more deprived areas, that will have a lasting negative impact on their health and life chances.”
However, education unions have called for greater clarity on how schools should handle a spike in coronavirus cases. The National Education Union (NEU) argued the government still had no “plan B”.
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the NEU, said: “Government advice needs to cover the possible self-isolation of bubbles and, in extremis, moving to rotas or to more limited opening. It needs to cover advice to heads about the protections needed for staff in high-risk categories if infection rates rise.”
It comes as new Public Health England (PHE) analysis showed there were 67 single confirmed cases, four “co-primary cases” (two or more linked cases diagnosed at the same time) and 30 outbreaks of Covid-19 in schools during June.
The PHE report said the majority of cases linked to outbreaks were in staff and warned that school staff needed to be “more vigilant for exposure outside the school setting to protect themselves, their families and the educational setting”.
The analysis also said further school closures may be necessary in regions with increasing community infection but this should “be considered only in extremis”.