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New study reveals children half as likely to catch virus

Waiting game: Tables spaced out in a classroom as Watlington Primary School in Oxfordshire prepares to reopen to children on June 1 PICTURE: REUTERS

CHILDREN could be half as likely to catch coronavirus as adults, and teachers do not appear to be at greater risk than other professions, according to new evidence.

The research emerged in papers assessing the impact of relaxing school closures from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).

Teaching unions and some councils have spoken out against plans to begin a phased reopening of schools in England on June 1.

A review of global studies led by University College London found those aged under 20 had 56 per cent less chance of being infected.

However, evidence on how likely children are to transmit Covid-19 remains ‘inconclusive’, according to the scientific advice used to inform the proposals to reopen schools.

And teachers do not appear to be at a greater risk of catching Covid-19 than other professions — but there is still some risk if schools reopen, scientific advisers said.

The advisers suggested that some form of coronavirus testing in school takes place.

Teachers’ unions called on the government to explain how it was safe for children and staff to return following publication of the evidence.

One union leader accused Boris Johnson of taking a ‘cavalier attitude’ towards children, while another union called the scientific advice ‘inconclusive’.

Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said: ‘Today, two months since lockdown was introduced, the Government has finally granted access to some of the scientific modelling behind its proposal for schools to open more widely from June 1.

‘We are surprised that the wider opening of schools proposed by Boris Johnson has not been modelled by Sage. This points to a cavalier attitude towards the nation’s children. The fact of the matter is that Sage has only weak evidence as to what extent children can transmit the virus to others.’

The evidence was released as figures showed that the reproductive rate of coronavirus has remained the same for a second week — and ministers came under sustained criticism from some scientists over their handling of the crisis.

Nobel Prize-winning scientist Sir Paul Nurse said the government had been ‘too much on the back foot’ while Sir Ian Boyd, a member of Sage, said acting earlier would have ‘made quite a big difference’ to the death rate.

They spoke as the number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK passed 45,000, according to the latest available data.

The so-called R number, the average number of people that will contract coronavirus from an infected person, was between 0.7 and one across the UK two to three weeks ago — the most recent period for which figures are available.

The rate is the same as that released last week and remains higher than the previous one, which was between 0.5 and 0.9.

The lack of downward movement is thought to be driven by the continued spread of the virus in care homes and hospitals during the period covered rather than in the wider community.

Keeping the R number below one is a key goal prime minister Boris Johnson has set to allow the continued gradual releasing of the lockdown in the coming months.

Meanwhile, ministers were facing a new backlash as more details emerged of plans to subject international travellers to spot checks and £1,000 fines if they fail to self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in the UK.

Exemptions for road hauliers and medical officials will apply, while the common travel area with Ireland will be unaffected.

But arrivals from France will not be exempt, a senior government official confirmed, following confusion in recent days.

Travellers will be asked to fill in a form with their contact information, and health officials will perform spot checks to ensure compliance with the measures.

But Virgin Atlantic warned the plan would keep planes grounded.

‘The safety and security of our people and our customers is always our top priority and public health must come first,’ a Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said.

‘However, by introducing a mandatory 14-day self-isolation for every single traveller entering the UK, the government’s approach will prevent flights from resuming.

‘We are continually reviewing our flying programme and with these restrictions, there simply won’t be sufficient demand to resume passenger services before August at the earliest.’

The airline instead called on the government to introduce a ‘multi-layered approach’ of targeted public health and screening measures to allow the safe restart of international travel.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis warned that the quarantine period would apply to British citizens returning from abroad but the plans would be reviewed every three weeks.

Many other countries already require arriving passengers to enter a 14-day quarantine, including New Zealand, South Africa, South Korea, Spain and the US.

This is despite the World Health Organization saying in February that measures which ‘significantly interfere’ with international travel ‘may only be justified at the beginning of an outbreak’.