BORIS JOHNSON has just days to get a grip on the ‘failing’ NHS test and trace system if he wants schools to reopen next month, experts warned yesterday.
They spoke out after the prime minister said the country has a ‘moral duty’ to reopen classes shut since March — and the number of new coronavirus cases jumped by 1,062, the biggest daily increase since June 25.
Many scientists believe that the move could force England’s battered economy back into lockdown, with ‘catastrophic’ consequences for the hospitality sector.
And, with the government’s ‘world-beating’ tracing programme reaching just half of the close contacts of those who test positive for Covid-19, there are fears of a second wave if millions of pupils return to school.
In another blow to Mr Johnson’s plans, teaching unions have also drawn up a list of 200 demands to make classrooms ‘safe’ for staff. Children’s commissioner Anne Longfield is among those calling for a ‘fit for purpose’ test and trace scheme, with weekly testing on all pupils and teachers.
But schools minister Nick Gibb insisted tests should be reserved for those with symptoms of the virus. ‘The priority has to be the hospitals, the care homes, the laboratories,’ he said. ‘Hygiene and bubbles within schools are the most effective methods of reducing the risk of transmission of the virus.’
Shadow education secretary Kate Green said it is ‘essential’ schools reopen next month — but they ‘can’t do this on their own’. She added: ‘When schools are doing everything they can, the government must do so as well.’
Mr Johnson raised the stakes at the weekend when he insisted that a September return is a ‘national priority’.
He said: ‘Keeping our schools closed a moment longer than absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible.’
But, as the official UK death toll rose by eight to 46,574, senior advisers warned that the lockdown may have to be tightened to allow schools to reopen. Former chief scientific adviser Sir David King warned that the UK is ‘nowhere near’ a safe reopening of schools, and said test and trace is ‘failing dramatically’.
He told the Sunday Mirror: ‘We need a proper test and trace system by September. Otherwise school opening will see the government backing lockdowns.’
Meanwhile, a Public Health England study of 20,000 pupils and 100 teachers is expected to show little risk of transmission within schools when it is published this week.
Teaching unions have been accused of drawing up a 200-point ‘wreckers’ charter’, demanding among other things that staff are allowed to wear masks in class and follow a relaxed dress code.
‘It is incredible not one of these 200 nit-picking questions asks the most important thing of all: What about the kids?’ said Robert Halfon, chairman of the Commons education committee.