Gove ‘confident’ teachers and pupils will be safe

Cabinet minister and former education secretary Michael Gove has defended the government’s plans to begin reopening schools from 1 June, and
said ‘we’re confident that children and teachers will be safe’. Speaking on the BBC Breakfast programme on Sunday 17 May, he argued that ‘the clear
scientific and clinical advice is that it is safe to have schools reopen, accompanied with social distancing’. He also urged councils which were reluctant to reopen their schools to the government’s timetable to ‘think again’. Some local authorities, including those in Liverpool and Hartlepool, have said they will not be reopening schools on 1 June. Liverpool City Council, which maintains 109 primary schools, has said it won’t be opening up its schools any further until at least 15 June. More combatively Mr Gove also suggested to local authorities that ‘If you really care about children, you’ll want them to be in school, you’ll want them to be learning, you’ll want them to have new opportunities, so…look to your responsibilities’.

Mr Gove’s comments came during a weekend of heightened debate on the safety or otherwise of reopening schools at the beginning of June. On Friday 15 May the Department for Education (DfE) published a summary of the advice it had received from the SAGE committee of scientific advisors. This document stated that the committee’s current understanding is that there is a ‘high degree of confidence’ that the severity of the disease is lower in children than in adults. However, on the same day the British Medical Association (BMA) sent a letter to the National Education Union (NEU) saying that they had been ‘absolutely right’ to urge caution. The NEU, together with other unions, has been vocal in demanding more clarification and assurances from the government, especially on testing, before reopening goes ahead. ‘We cannot risk a second spike or take actions which would increase the spread of this virus, particularly as we see sustained rates of infection across the UK,’ the BMA council’s chair, Chaand Nagpaul, said in the letter. 

Education secretary Gavin Williamson was asked about the BMA’s letter as he led the government’s daily coronavirus briefing on Saturday 16 May. While he did not address the BMA’s advice directly in his answer, he did say that the government had taken ‘the most cautious and precautionary approach’ to the reopening of schools. In response to another question at the briefing, deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said that SAGE had modelled seven different scenarios for pupils to return to school. She stated that the one adopted had been chosen to avoid anything but a very small increase in the reproduction rate of the virus. Elsewhere during the briefing the education secretary said that the DfE’s proposed measures to manage the risk in schools - which include social distancing, smaller class sizes, additional cleaning and the wider availability of testing for children and their families - would create an ‘inherently safer system, where the risk of transmission is substantially reduced.’

There were further questions on schools at the government coronavirus briefing on Sunday 17 May. BBC correspondent Vicki Young asked if the government could guarantee that a test, track and trace system for pupils and teachers would be in place by 1 June. Responding on behalf of the government, business secretary Alok Sharma said that ‘safety is absolutely paramount’ and again listed the various precautionary measures that were being taken to ensure teacher and pupil safety. He also thanked teachers for their work in keeping schools open for vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers. However he did not offer a guarantee on the test, track and trace system, or address the question of testing directly in his answer.

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