OPENING schools could push the crucial R rate to 1.5 and lead to “rapid growth of the coronavirus”, one expert has claimed.
The government is adamant that schools will reopen this September after being closed in March due to the Covid-19 outbreak.
Professor Neil Ferguson – who resigned from the Government’s advisory group Sage said the reproduction rate could increase if higher educational settings are opened.
He also said that the country may not “get back to anything close to normal until spring”.
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme, he said the main concern was with secondary schools as they pose a “real risk of amplification or transmission of case numbers going up quite sharply”.
He added: “In terms of the reproduction number the R value, opening high schools could increase it by as much as a half, but by as little as 0.2 or 0.3, but it will go up.
“Given that we are at R1 at the moment, clearly we don’t want it to go up to 1.5 or so, that would lead to quite rapid growth of the epidemic.”
The ‘R’ rate is a key measure used to find out the rate at which one infected person is likely to spread coronavirus.
Scientists use it to predict how far and how fast a disease will spread – and the number informs policy decisions about how to contain an outbreak.
Prof Ferguson said it is important to note that not all schools are the same and that there is a lot of evidence which suggests that primary school children pose a low risk of transmission.
“I think the concern is with secondary schools, teenagers, further education colleges and universities where the evidence is not certain but it looks like older teenagers can transmit just as well as adults.
“The risk then is that big schools, comprehensives, universities, FE (further education) colleges link lots of households together, reconnect the social network which social distancing measures have deliberately disconnected.”
If social distancing is handled correctly at the school gates, then Prof Ferguson said rates of infections may not go up as much as was first feared.
“But there will have to be some tightening up of restrictions in other areas to maintain an overall low enough level of contacts so we don’t see levels of transmission increasing”, he added.
He said he agreed with comments made by Professor Chris Whitty in which he said that the country is at it’s limit when it’s comes to easing restrictions in other areas.
While he said he agreed that children should go back to school, he added that the country may have to “row back” on some areas that have already been relaxed to allow schools to fully open.
“For instance social venues, leisure venues, more working from home. That’s really a policy decision but in my view it is likely that some form of those measures will be necessary to maintain control of transmission.”
Looking towards the winter and Prof Ferguson said it’s likely that things could get “quite difficult”.
Asked whether he thought the situation would get worse during the winter months he said: “Without doubt, the time of year now, schools have been shut, because of the weather and the seasonality of disease transmission this is the best it will get.”
He added: “Things are likely to get more difficult going into the autumn and winter and people spend more time in doors, the virus probably transmits more efficiently in colder weather.
“So things could get quite difficult and I am reasonably confident that as long as the political will is in place to maintain control of transmission that we can do it.”
Prof Ferguson said there is “good enough surveillance in place” to know that’s happening .
“It will be challenging and there will be no going back to anything close to normal social interaction at least not until we get through to next spring and potentially to the availability of a vaccine.”